Separate lives, silenced voices : women offenders speaking out on domestic violence and community-based services
The primary aim of this study is to explore women offenders' experiences of, contact with, and delivery of, community-based health and social care services. Women offenders represent a particularly disadvantaged and silent group in society whose views have largely been disregarded in previous studies. More specifically, there has been a general lack of attention to their experiences of trying to meet their welfare needs before and after they encounter the Criminal Justice System (CJS). This research sought to provide a more informed understanding of what participants wanted to convey about their lived realities, the meaning of their experiences of help-seeking and their perceptions of appropriate responses to their welfare needs. The study was local, purposive and applied. It was underpinned by feminist epistemology and qualitative, heuristic and collaborative methodology. Reflexive dimensions were an integral part of the whole research process. It was also strengthened by a wish to change policy and practice as a direct consequence of hearing and taking account of service users' standpoints on experiencing those policies and practices. Of central importance was a desire to view women offenders not as research 'subjects' but as 'participants' in a process which would put their views and perspectives at the centre of the study. Therefore, before embarking on the study, I set up a research advisory group as a means of collaborating with women who had direct and personal experience of the CJS as 'expert advisers', to help guide and develop the research. I also sought ways of working collaboratively with research participants, for example, by utilising research methods such as participant observation and semi-structured interviews and asking participants to provide feedback on how I had written up my interactions with them. I also incorporated participant and gatekeeper evaluation methods to seek their views on their experiences of the research. The original contributions to the body of knowledge and understanding that this research makes are in the identification of characteristics of a service generic model of communitybased welfare provision. This relates particularly to the attitudes and behaviours of and delivery by service providers and individual practitioners. It is also framed in the context of participants' shared experience of domestic violence and its impact on their help-seeking from welfare services which was previously hidden and unknown. In addition, the study adds to feminist social research methodology through the development of a feminist and heuristic approach to collaborative research that seeks to involve the 'knowers' in an innovative way, that is, as 'expert advisers', throughout the research process. The profound and lasting impact is the clarity of its core findings: what emerge from women who participated in this work are appeals for service providers, individual practitioners (and researchers) to be in relationship with them. Hence, there is a call for the reduction of destructive boundaries in relationships and the integration of reflexive practice, in both the provision of community-based welfare services and approaches to conducting research of this kind.