Women are struggling to find support from public services after over a decade of austerity. Image: Unsplash
Martha lost her voice when her baby was taken away. No one was listening. There was little support and she was left with an aching heart and no coping mechanisms beyond drug use. She believes public services failed her, as they continue to fail so many other women across the country.
“I hit rock bottom when my daughter was removed,” says Martha, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “I physically lost my voice because I felt so unheard. My throat was blocked. I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. I didn’t feel listened to. I felt stripped of my humanity. I felt like this process was just happening to me. I wasn’t part of it.”
Martha is one of many women facing the damage of 13 years of austerity. Public services meant to support vulnerable people have been stripped back because of funding cuts, meaning they are left without the lifesaving help they need. And disadvantaged areas are hit the hardest.
A new report has found that women in the North East of England, where Martha is based, are nearly twice as likely to die early from addiction, suicide or domestic homicide. The numbers are rising, as services face a “triple shock” of austerity, the pandemic and cost of living crisis.
Council spending across the whole of England fell by 13% between 2009 and 2019, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research. That is billions of pounds of cuts to public services. In the North East, the cuts were even greater, with council spending falling by 23% in the decade up to 2019.
Martha, a survivor of domestic abuse and recovering from problematic substance use, says: “They talk about levelling up. They talk about funding, but there isn’t funding. Local authorities are closing centres that are vital if you’re using drugs. You have to travel further to get anywhere and then it’s a choice between going to your appointment or buying yourself drugs.”
Martha had a middle-class upbringing but faced mental health struggles as a teenager. “These things are never dealt with early on,” she says. “If my mental health problems had been dealt with earlier in a loving and compassionate way, instead of feeling judged and like I was the problem, my life would have been different. Instead, I ended up on the trajectory of a heroin user.”
She got into university but then “met someone who had been on heroin” and started using herself. She adds: “The relationship was violent. I was with him for 13 years. It was difficult for me. I was relying on this person to get my drugs because I wasn’t from that world.”
When Martha first reached out for help for substance use, she felt like staff did not know what to do with her because she was well educated and well spoken. “There was an expectation that I should just be able to sort myself out because I wasn’t the stereotype of a heroin user,” she says.
“I would challenge them. I would read their policies and I would say: ‘You’re not adhering to your policies. You’re not treating me correctly. I have a right to this.’ But they didn’t like being challenged. I amalgamated into the stereotypical heroin user because I was treated that way by the system. I lost my voice. I became pushed down and silenced.”
Other women are unable to access the services at all. Between 2021 and 2022, more than 180,000 women needed mental health support in Northumberland and Tyne and Wear but only 32,435 accessed it. Just over 3,000 were able to access drug and alcohol services of the 8,000 who needed it.
At her most desperate, Martha broke into someone’s home to steal money to buy drugs. She only stole £3 but was given a year-long prison sentence for burglary, which was reduced to eight months because she pleaded guilty. She ended up serving four months.
“I had no experience with the criminal justice system and that was just one of the most traumatic experiences – not being in prison but the thought that my life is over,” she recalls. “I’m never going to be able to get a job. I’m going to be judged forever.
“I was so ashamed of myself. I found it difficult to move on afterwards and my coping strategy was drugs. So I just used more drugs. There was no support to help me out of that situation.”
Then she fell pregnant. “My daughter was removed at birth, which was extremely traumatic. There was no support. As soon as social services had found a solution, and my daughter was put under special guardianship order with my ex-partner’s mother, they basically just dropped me.”
The number of children being taken away from their birth families is rising. In 2009, official statistics show there were an estimated 60,930 children who had been in local authority care for more than 24 hours. By 2021, that had soared to 80,850 – an increase of a third.
In the North East of England, this rise has been even higher. Since 2009 there has been a 77% increase in the number of children being placed in care.
Martha knows that she was not in a position to look after her daughter, but she hoped she would receive the support she needed to get her life back on track so one day she might be. “You fall off a cliff when your child is removed. I was still using drugs and there was no support,” she says.
Eventually she found recovery. She went through a privately funded rehab and her mum paid £10,000 for eight weeks. Narcotics Anonymous and other women who had been in her situation were also a support. It was through this that she managed to escape her abusive relationship.
“Two years on from everything, I see my daughter at the weekends, unsupervised,” she adds. “I look after her in my house. I am completely different from where I was, but I would have to say that I did that myself. It was not the services.”
Martha believes support needs to be more individualised, services need to be joined-up and women need to be treated with compassion. “Community is so fundamental in any recovery,” she adds. “When people start feeling empowered, they can help themselves and connect and talk and that is so important.”
Women are dying early, and more lives could be lost without urgent change. The charity Changing Lives, which supports vulnerable women nationally, says the average age of women dying in their services is just 37. Martha, who is now 41, believes she is lucky to be alive.
“I think if I hadn’t found recovery, that could easily have been me,” she says. I’ve been extremely lucky not to have died. I have to remember every day that things could have been very different. I’m not saying everybody who has a substance use issue is going to grasp help with open hands, but the very fact that somebody’s asking for help in the first place is huge.
“If we can meet them with love, compassion and care, that might change things instead of the punitive system we have where people are blamed. These are our sisters, mothers and daughters. Nobody deserves to die at 37.”
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