What’s worse than being a woman with a drug problem?

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Something which the Government failed to mention in its recent, polished figures is that female unemployment is at its highest for twenty five years. Women’s organisations are pointing out that austerity measures unfairly target women, by making cuts to child benefits at a time when childcare and household bills are rapidly increasing, whilst those that do have jobs still get paid less than men (in 2010, in the public sector – which one may imagine to be the least discriminatory employer – the pay gap between men and women was still an incredible 21%).

An interesting article in Drink and Drug News this month considers the impact of austerity on female drug users. I touched on the stigma faced by women who use substances in Baby wants a double vodka, but this article looks at the effects of the cuts to service provision, given the complexities that often come hand-in-hand with being a woman with a drug problem.

As Caroline Lucas MP points out, women’s substance misuse is often more complicated than men’s, regularly associated with parental and sexual stigmatisation and shame, childcare issues, domestic abuse and prostitution. Yet these specific needs were omitted entirely from the 2010 Drug Strategy, and the ‘bulk-buying” approach to commissioning has meant that gender nuances are now ignored.

The women’s drug service in our area has vanished during the cuts, and their work absorbed by generic drug workers who have less capacity for home visits and parenting work. Many of their clients, who have experienced issues such as sexual abuse, may now need to be seen by male workers, unless they have the confidence to make demands (confidence not being a trait often associated with this group – neither the balance of power when your script depends on it). And whereas having a family may be seen as increasing someone’s ‘recovery capital’, is this necessarily the same when, for women, this may include single parenthood and domestic abuse?

Attempts to maintain and develop best practice are further stretched as fewer staff mean workloads increase – and research into joint-working models has exposed that workers who attempt a multi-agency approach to supporting women often report having to hide this from their managers, as the extra work they do cannot be directly evidenced statistically and so is considered ‘out-of-remit’.

And then there’s what social worker Gretchen Precey has tagged ‘start again syndrome’ – the desire to see every woman’s pregnancy or birth as a fresh start. The dilemma working with this client group is balancing the constant need for motivation and positivity, the belief in the possibility of change, with prioritising the needs of helpless foetuses and babies. As workers, when we see chaos, we often understand vulnerability – and we desperately focus on the glint of positive in the shit pile of someone’s life. But to ignore a woman’s past experiences of motherhood is dangerous, warns Precey – and in a culture where professionals are blamed for any harm that comes to a child (as though, I always feel, they are the perpetrators), workers are left to balance hope against risk. It creates a moral clash. These are the cases that keep you awake at night.

Almost ten years ago, I was involved in a consultation on the Government’s white paper, Paying the Price, which looked at how best to manage prostitution. It seems sad that, years later, the comments I made then ring truer than ever. My point was – the links between child abuse and sex work are well-documented, and yet Social Care are increasingly under-funded and over-stretched. What was once a support service now exists almost exclusively for the purpose of risk management. And so, whether we consider female sex workers, female drug misusers, or women who struggle with motherhood, the common themes remain the same – and as long as we fail to address the root causes of these issues, we are producing the next generation exhibiting these behaviours. The chain continues.

And some of you will know how it feels to see the kids you tried to protect all those years ago arriving at your door with baby bumps, track marks and utter disgust at the world.

14 comments on “What’s worse than being a woman with a drug problem?

  1. Jamie says:

    Good post on the realities faced by vulnerable women, not that all female drug users are , but certainly the ones that need services have a significant hill to climb to just get heard and supported .The irony of feeling like you have no value , becoming pregnant and then being recognised via the value of the risk you present to your own child ( I know that maybe isn’t the intention by all the well meaning male and female workers out there but is what the processes dictate in most instances )
    Experience suggests this is cyclical and kids who feel they have no value live a value less life….In America I understand crack users receive a cash payment to get sterilised, and some of the users in the moment at least see this as a credible means of temp income, a dichotomy of today’s life which highlights the largely ignored (because it offends the sensitivities of middle america )reality of some being of less value than others based on largely what they are born into whilst accepting this reality and employing an economic and practical reality to address the cycle of neglect which is largely a creation of …….( how did Russell brand put it again)…

    • Thank you, I love your point about value, and only perceiving your own value in terms of the risk you pose to your child – very sad but spot on. There is no easy solution either – and yes, the problem is complex and incorporates not only gender but also social standing and opportunity.

  2. Ruthie says:

    Really interesting post and informative as ever, thanks! Just a quick question, you mention that there is a link between child abuse and sex work: do you mean that prostitutes are sexually abusing their children or that they were themselves abused?

  3. handmadebyfi says:

    Another brilliant post.

    Ruthie, from my limited experience the cycle of abuse ranges from girls being abused who then go into prostitution to girls who have been abused, have kids and allow abusers (every boyfriend becomes an ‘uncle’ who does what he wants) to keep up the cycle of abuse. I had one girl who’s mum allowed men to have sex with her from a very early age, she entered prostitution to fund her smack and alcohol addiction, had 4 kids with foetal alcohol syndrome and yet she advocated for her children to be put in her mums care (it was that or the ‘system’) despite knowing what would, and did, happen to them.

    With every pregnancy she was left even emptier, more alone and feeling like she was less than worthless. It’s heartbreaking but I found it really difficult to work with her when I was pregnant. I found it even sadder when I bumped into her a year ago and she was pregnant again.

    • Oh god. Thanks for this, Fi. Yes, I too have worked with women where abuse was so normalised within their families that they left their own children in the abuser’s care. I have also worked with families so pimp out their own children. There is certainly an aspect of familial norms in many of these circumstances.

      More common though are the people who have suffered abuse at the hands of an uncle, a grandfather, a next-door neighbour, whose families are unaware of the abuse. In these situations, not only the abuse itself, but the awareness that it is wrong, the self-blaming, and the secret-keeping, can lead to negative coping mechanisms such as drug and alcohol use – which itself often leads to sex work to raise funds.

      I’m really sorry to hear about your client though, Fi. I think Jamie’s earlier comment about a person feeling they have no value – until they have a child and become valued in terms of the risk they pose – applies in her case.

      And these are the cases that raise the moral dilemmas I mentioned in the blog – at what point do the rights of the child over-ride those of the mother? I still can’t accept that a baby has no rights until the day it is born.. In utero abuse is not child abuse, and so there is nothing anyone, apart from the mother, can do about it.

  4. Thanks for this article and for the work you have done to help women with a drug problem. I speak with these women every day and hear their frustrations and fears. I will reblog this on:



    • Wow thanks Dennis, that is so good of you. As you may already know, I was a drugs worker for 12 years and still try and fight the corner of people who are judged and politically side-lined for their substance use. I really appreciate the support.

  5. […] What's worse than being a woman with a drug problem?. […]

  6. typosintheline says:

    Reblogged this on Ward McBurney.

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