Grace’s career began at a service for women involved in the criminal justice system, looking at why they might be offending and supporting them to build confidence and gain independence.
In 2017, Grace joined Bristol charity, One25, which reaches out to women involved in, or at risk of becoming involved in, street sex work, as well as supporting women to escape poverty, violence and addiction. One25 has an outreach van, drop-in service and a personal development service called Peony. Grace works within a team of caseworkers covering, housing, mental health, criminal justice, recovery and - within her role - domestic and/or sexual violence.
What made you decide to support vulnerable women through your work?
All women have a voice and we all deserve to be heard. All too often, women are silenced again and again by abusers and are made to believe that no-one is there to listen. It’s not about working with ‘vulnerable women’; rather it’s about working with and supporting women to reduce the vulnerabilities that they are faced with. We work for them to feel empowered and find opportunities for them to take control of their own lives.
As well as the dangers that they are faced with on a daily basis, women who street sex work are also stigmatised, discriminated against and marginalised. This society can be an environment where they feel totally silenced but, in spite of this, there is resourcefulness and resilience. Working for One25 in a team that advocates for women’s voices to be listened to is what inspires me.
As a specialist IDSVA at One25, how do you see the link between domestic abuse, addiction and sex work?
It’s a dangerous cycle that women can become trapped in and can be extremely difficult to leave. The women I have worked with are often deeply traumatised from early childhood abuse - which has continued throughout their lives - and from violence that continues to be perpetrated against them from abusive partners, family members, peers or from violent punters who target street sex workers.
They are at continued risk of homelessness, are malnourished, often in and out of prison, have acute physical and mental health issues and have drug and/or alcohol addictions. Street sex-working becomes their means of earning money to fund their addiction, often stemming and escalating from exploitation or coercion by controlling and abusive partners for their own financial and sexual purposes. They are repeat victims of domestic abuse and/or sexual violence and become entrenched in addiction. Substances are used to mask their ongoing trauma and are also a means for perpetrators to coerce and to exploit them.
Abuse can become normalised and leads to total eradication of self-esteem and self-worth. It feeds into a mentality that this life is all that they deserve and a life away from it can seem impossible.
What is the key to empowering women to break this cycle?
For me, one key is to understand that a woman involved in or at risk of street sex work will have complex and multiple disadvantages - that a wraparound service is so effective in ensuring that the necessary support is accessible to them. It’s important to be aware of the barriers they face as a marginalised group and the challenges and risks that can prevent and isolate them from accessing the support that they need.
We are committed to meeting them at whatever point they are in their journey. So we allow flexibility and creativity in ways of engaging with them, we work with clients on a long-term basis within a team of multiple specialisms, and we work alongside other projects and services.
Consistency, person-centred support and non-judgement provides the backdrop to working alongside a woman. We listen to her focus at whatever point she is at and we are ready and quick to action whenever an opportunity arises. One25’s massive volunteer and supporter base reinforces the concept of a healthy and loving community, which a woman will have rarely had. This itself has a hugely positive effect on creating a safe space in which they can feel empowered to make their own decisions and to build positive relationships.
For an exit from this cycle to be sustainable, I’ve found that our support needs to be trauma-informed, understanding what services will and won’t work. The more positive experiences a woman has of services the more empowered she will feel to move on to the next step of her journey.
How is COVID-19 affecting the way you support your clients?
The sex industry as a whole has been significantly affected by COVID-19. The pandemic has grossly highlighted the systemic gaps - for street sex workers especially. Their means to earn money for their addictions is much lessened. The punters that are out there are paying less while drug prices are rising and the quality dropping. The women face so many barriers to accessing services anyway and COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the support networks available to them. This seriously affects their safety, mental and physical health and their wellbeing. There’s an unbelievable increase in risk to them, especially those living with abusive partners who are even more exposed to the abuse, even more isolated, with interventions less accessible.
We’ve had to adapt quickly, with an intense focus on housing, scripting and starting a food delivery service. Keeping the lines of communication open has been so important, with the outreach van still going out every weeknight. And we’re giving out mobile phones to women which is so positive but doesn’t always guarantee safe communication or safe spaces.
There are many exacerbating risk factors that have been added as a result of COVID-19 along with challenges to risk management. Statutory and voluntary services across Bristol are adapting and it’s been reassuring to see so much determination and care to ensure services and support are still available. But the level of vulnerability that surrounds these women at this time is frightening.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering this career, what would it be?
From working with the women I’ve met, I now understand the meaning and power of resilience. And that it is absolutely possible for the cycles of poverty, violence and addiction to be broken. If you’re working with a client group whose voice has been silenced, see the work that you do together as shouting through a megaphone.
Grace was nominated by her manager, Moi, who said:
"Grace has a complex caseload of women who are active in addiction, homeless and suffering from high risk violence-sometimes from multiple perpetrators. She works tirelessly to meet the changing needs of her clients in a holistic, trauma informed way. She has empowered women to break a cycle of violence, drug addiction and sex work through consistent and flexible safety planning, advocating for their rights and having a strength based holistic approach."
Do you know a professional who has gone above and beyond to change the response to domestic abuse and keep survivors and their families safe? Nominate someone for Star of the Month by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Star of the Month’ as the subject line.