Partner up

Co-production and partnership working can help organisations thrive in troubled times. DDN hears from the MD of Equinox Care and Penrose Criminal Justice Services, Kelly Hallett.

‘As a sector we can still do more to work together to find better or more innovative ways of pooling resources and supporting people,’ says Kelly Hallett. ‘Certainly one of my priorities is to identify more opportunities for us to be building these relationships and combining expertise.’

Joined-up working is a subject she knows quite a bit about – late last year she was appointed MD of Equinox Care and Penrose Criminal Justice Services, both of which are part of the Social Interest Group (SIG), which was established as a charity in 2014. ‘At the time Equinox was looking for a merger partner and Penrose wanted to build a much stronger infrastructure, which it couldn’t afford on its own,’ says Hallett. ‘SIG was the answer.’

The group now includes five charities, and provides the framework to support them and help develop their strategies. This means organisations can remain true to their charitable aims and retain their own boards while benefitting from being part of a ‘much bigger picture’, she explains. ‘It’s about strengthening our charities by opening up opportunities to freely learn from each other and innovate, working closely together and remaining financially robust enough to enjoy the back-office services that they could not have achieved on their own.’

The new MD role offers the opportunity to ‘lead two charities as businesses that truly care about individuals’ recovery and rehabilitation’, she says. ‘I have great ambitions for Equinox, Penrose and our service users.’ She’d worked at Penrose for more than six years, rising to director of operations and director of criminal justice services, before taking on the current role. Before was Turning Point – first as regional manager for Kent and then assistant director for substance misuse – and before that a period in prison drug treatment. ‘I started as a volunteer, progressing to CARAT worker, CARAT manager and then eastern area manager, overseeing 11 drug treatment services in prisons across the East of England,’ she says.

So was the drugs sector something she’d always been interested in? ‘Not specifically. I always knew I’d work with vulnerable people and I always had an interest in prisons. Many years ago I worked with the elderly, then I had a temp job in a prison doing admin which gave me the opportunity to be introduced to the prison substance misuse team. I started volunteering with them in 2003, which led to a job within the team – this field has captivated me from day one, and I’m still very grateful to have been given that volunteer position.’

Drug treatment in prisons is obviously facing hugely challenging times, with the consequences of the dramatic increase in NPS use making regular headlines. What could be done to improve treatment provision in the current climate? ‘I think that whilst there are some excellent examples and outcomes out there, there are still many challenges to providing effective, choice-based treatment,’ she says. ‘The cuts to funding and staffing are well known, and the environment itself is restrictive – prisons are facing their own challenging times. Access to, and movement of, prisoners is not always easy, and prison regimes often mean that it’s hard for meaningful activity to take place – boredom and lack of daily structure can be very demotivating.’

Despite all the evidence showing that ‘safe environments improve outcomes’, access to specific resettlement, wellbeing or drug-free wings isn’t always an option, she points out. ‘And we need to think about where we locate offenders post-treatment within a prison setting.’ Healthcare-led models can also dilute the emphasis on treating substance problems, she adds. ‘The focus on overall wellbeing is welcome – we know that offenders will almost always have many needs – but it does mean that there are fewer opportunities for intensive treatment for offenders. I think every positive outcome achieved in a prison is a testament to the skill and dedication of the support provider.’

In terms of the specific challenge of NPS, their use has changed the prison landscape ‘significantly, if not completely’, she states. ‘There isn’t an easy answer. Availability is high, it’s difficult to detect, and it makes an already difficult environment even harder in terms of treatment and – from a prison perspective – control.’

Education around the risks and effects needs to be dramatically stepped up, she stresses, with the allocation of dedicated resources alongside more action to interrupt supply. ‘It should be a top priority – the introduction of NPS has created the perfect storm, and I don’t think we saw it coming in time to be anything other than reactive.’

A key concern that predates the NPS crisis is the crucial period immediately after release, when the risk of overdose can be high. What kind of support should organisations be putting in place? ‘We know from experience and data that the take up of treatment post-release is lower than anyone would like, and there are many ways it could be improved,’ she says. ‘We’re still in the position where a great many offenders across the country walk out of the gate on release alone, and that can be scary – no matter how many appointments have been made – and transition between support and/or treatment agencies can be particularly hard for some.’

Many prisoners will have multiple needs to address, and little support when it comes to safe and positive influences – just trying to navigate services can feel overwhelming. While peer support and ‘meet at the gate’ services can undoubtedly be effective they remain underfunded, and those that do exist struggle to meet the demand. ‘A true through-the-gate model that holistically supports offenders through that first few weeks would be welcomed by many agencies,’ she says. ‘Then there are the challenges of working effectively with someone who may only be in prison for a few weeks, or remand prisoners who come and go so quickly and yet can have the highest needs.’

Our current sentencing system also means we’re ‘still sending far too many offenders to prison for short periods’, she says, which mainly serves to ‘disrupt already unstable lives further’. Far more people would benefit from intensive drug and alcohol treatment, mental health treatment or both, she states. ‘I am determined for Penrose Criminal Justice Services to successfully develop and promote alternatives to prison for this cohort – and we haven’t even touched on the need for safe and secure accommodation.’

When it comes to populations whose needs have traditionally been under-served by the sector perhaps the most obvious is women, and part of her remit was to set up a residential complex needs service in Brighton, which opened last month. How important are specialised services like this in the sector? ‘There’s such a need for female-specific services,’ she says. ‘Demand for our service is high, and that’s just three weeks in. These services are essential, and there need to be more. We’ve been able to create a safe, female-only environment, and all of the evidence shows us that when women feel safe and are appropriately supported they achieve greater independence and higher self-esteem.’

The women in the service have ‘multiple and very complex needs,’ she continues. ‘Lots of emotion, lots of trauma – domestic violence and exploitation is a prevalent need – and all of our residents have chosen our service because it’s female only. That speaks volumes in itself. Women in our service are able to articulate themselves away from stigma, away from control, and reflect. They’re supported with all individual needs within the service, including those who have children, and what we can’t provide ourselves we bring in. Brighton has some amazing partnership working, some of the best that I’ve seen anywhere – there’s clear progression within the service towards independent living and this gives our women hope. I definitely plan to develop more female-only services in the near future.’

As someone whose experience covers substance use, offender services, mental health and more, how far has genuine joined-up working become a reality? ‘I think things have improved, but there’s still a long way to go,’ she says. ‘Again, there’s a mix of examples in the field, from excellence to non-existence. It’s always troubling when we meet service users who have failed in recovery or resettlement simply because they couldn’t navigate, or find cohesiveness between, community support services. Just a few months ago I was talking to a service user who had had eight assessments from different services in ten days. Is this really where we still are?’

The flipside of that is the excitement that comes with seeing great services or innovation, however. ‘I come away thinking “I want that!”’ she says. ‘It’s not always reflected in data – what I want to see is the tangible impact. I hope that one day health and social care can be used in the same sentence in a much more meaningful way. They’re all too often miles apart.’

The answer ultimately lies in ‘truly joining things up solely to the benefit of service users, co-producing services and improving access using their experience – they really do know best’, she states. ‘To see that across the board would be phenomenal. It’s actually one of the biggest strengths of the Social Interest Group – we have all of that expertise under one umbrella and we can work in a very cohesive way to offer more joined-up services, but it’s more than just us.’

So what sort of strategies should the voluntary sector be adopting generally in these challenging times? ‘Co-production and partnership working – there are so many great organisations out there, and many examples of organisations really strengthening their offerings to service users by joining forces.’ Funding keeps going down while demand keeps going up, and there’s ‘still a lot of duplication in what we do and how we do it’, she says. ‘We could be working together in a much more powerful way to influence and deliver real change in the sector – both locally and politically. We’re so good at what we do – our voices should be heard more.’

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