Surrey: Embedding substance use workers at women's support centre

A partnership between Surrey County Council and Woking Borough Council’s Women’s Support Centre is ensuring women who are involved in or at risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system get the support they need for drug and alcohol problems.  

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‘An ideal partnership’ 

The Women’s Support Centre is based in the Surrey town of Woking but helps women from all over the county. It provides a range of support to vulnerable women, including to those who have served sentences or have found themselves subjected to or at risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system.  

The centre’s project workers support and empower women with everything from benefits and housing to mental health, education and domestic abuse and - thanks to a partnership with Surrey County Council - it also has two specialist substance use workers. They provide one-to-one support and advocacy as well as facilitating recovery groups at the centre and referring women on to more structured treatment programmes where appropriate.  

A part-time specialist substance use post first started being funded by Surrey's public health team in 2012, but there are now two full-time posts in place.  

Senior Public Health Lead Heather Ryder said: “Women were always under-represented in terms of our substance use clients, so we wanted to look at new ways of engaging with them.   

“We know many women caught up in the criminal justice system have drug and alcohol addiction issues, so the Surrey Women’s Support Centre was the ideal partner as they do such great work helping and support women.”  

The workers co-facilitate two self-management and recovery groups for women in Surrey. Currently one is run online and the second in-person. They regularly attract between 12 and 17 people and use the nationally recognised SMART recovery model.  

The council also provide training to staff at the centre as well as clients so they can co-facilitate some of the SMART recovery groups.  

Ms Ryder said: “The arrangement is really working well, which is why we have increased the support. They also get involved with safeguarding and child protection too, working closely with the rest of the team that work at the centre.”  

Why there is no time-limit for the support 

Centre Manager Leanne Spiller agrees the addition of the specialist substance use workers has been crucial to the centre, which is part funded by Woking Borough Council and the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner. 

“Sometimes it can take weeks for women to trust and engage with us. The specialist substance use workers are great at unlocking that. For many women we work with it will be the first non-exploitative relationship they will have had. Experiencing these trusted relationships can also mean women could be open to receiving other support.”  

Because of that, Ms Spiller said the centre does not set time-limits on how long they support women. “Lots of support services have to set a timeframe, perhaps around 12 weeks, but this would be detrimental for our clients as it can take that long to truly understand the complex needs and develop a plan.

“So, we don’t set a timeframe and we work from a trauma-informed approach. The support can last months and result in sustained change like reductions in reoffending and substance use and an increase in healthy relationships and self-care.” 

Referrals come from a variety of sources, including the probation service, GPs and social services as well as self-referrals. Once referred the women undertake an assessment with their worker. At any one time, the centre will be supporting around 300 women. 

Another core part of the wider support that can be provided is for mental health. The centre provides up to six months of therapy to the women it works with as well as liaising closely with statutory services including social care and housing.  

Housing is particularly important too, said Ms Spiller. “In the hierarchy of needs, it is not possible to focus on safety needs, love and belonging, esteem or self-actualisation if one’s physiological needs have not been met. Therefore, we work with all the district councils and housing associations to try to find solutions. It can be a real challenge.  

“Unfortunately, particularly with domestic abuse and substance use, there is still a lot of victim blaming that occurs. Some women have had really harrowing experiences – they may have been gang-raped, set on fire, assaulted for weeks on end and suffered terrible domestic abuse. In almost all cases there is a reason for the substance use and other difficulties. That is why our service is so needed.”   

Contact details 

Heather Ryder, Senior Public Health Lead, Surrey County Council: [email protected]