History of CHOICES

In recent times charities have experienced numerous ‘boom and bust’ money cycles and many have suffered when boom has turned to bust. The 1980’s, when the story of CHOICES begins, was a ‘boom’ phase and a lot of funds were available for charitable activities; however, financially, there have also been some very bad times

CHOICES, a rather unconvincing acronym for the ‘Cambridge House for Incest Survivors’, started life in 1986.

Organisations like Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis developed nationally during the 1970s and 80s. Their staff soon recognised that for many of the women they were working with there was a background of Childhood Sexual Abuse but there was no organisation that dealt specifically with this issue.

Here in Cambridge women from Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis and the Incest Survivors Group met in the mid 80’s and decided the main priority was to establish a ‘safe house’ so that girls could escape from the homes in which they were experiencing the abuse. This appears to be a different situation from today – then they were dealing predominantly with young women who were still experiencing, or had recently escaped from, the abusive situation. Today, in our counselling, we find that a quarter of our clients are aged between 40 and 50 with a further quarter over the age of 50. They have waited a long time to be ready to ask for help; although, in fact, this is the same cohort who were teenagers, or in their early 20s, 30 years ago.

The Incest Survivors’ Refuge Group was given a house by the Cambridge City Council to provide safe, supportive, accommodation for female survivors, and Social Services provided funding for 3 part time workers.

By 1987 the hostel was running smoothly and an office was established in Gonville Place, staffed between 11 and 2 when the hostel workers would answer enquiries and meet with women looking for support. A telephone helpline was available during these hours, again staffed by whichever hostel worker was in the office, and this actually took calls from all over the UK, as there were so few services available nationally at that time. It soon became clear that more workers were needed in order to reach the number of women approaching the service. A grant from Opportunities for Volunteering allowed CHOICES to employ 3.5 full-time equivalent staff. There was a full-time administrator and 3 hostel workers who divided their time between the hostel and the office, where they offered telephone and face-to-face counselling. Already the waiting list was growing.

In 1988 CHOICES’ office moved to the Women’s Resource Centre in Station Road – a women-only building. Here there was a larger office, a well-equipped counselling room and a spacious meeting room that could be used for Survivors’ Groups.

It became apparent that the hostel residents were uncomfortable having in-depth counselling from the same staff that supported them in the hostel and so the decision was made to separate the roles of hostel workers and counsellors. By 1990 there were two hostel workers, a full-time counsellor and a full-time administrator working a total of 130 hours each week. It is of interest to note that currently, even in a time of expansion, we can afford to pay our Head of Services and our office staff for a total of only 51 hours a week, plus 10 hours of paid counselling time.

In 1989-90 the telephone helpline received, as would be expected, the majority of its calls from survivors. However there were 60 calls from mothers of children who had been recently abused. These mothers were looking for support for themselves in order to best help their children.

During 1990 CHOICES started to recruit voluntary counsellors, for whom training was provided.

By 1993-4 there was the first serious funding crisis. CHOICES commitment was to long-term work at a time when nationally there was a focus on short-term work. This difficulty has been a recurring theme over the past 20 years. To quote from that report:

 “Some of our users have survived many years of abuse, violation and sexual terrorism. Short term work is inadequate and often ineffective with this particular group.”

We would agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment – we are totally committed to long-term counselling as our core service. I particularly appreciated the use of the phrase “sexual terrorism” here: it is a clear indication of what has happened to our clients. Perhaps we should be using that phrase more often so that it is recognised that our clients are equivalent to those who have survived terrorist attacks – except, of course, that many of them have survived attacks over and over and over again.

To meet the funding gap, it was necessary to cut the group that had been supporting the carers of children who had been abused. The hostel closed in 1994, partly because of the funding difficulties, but also because other possibilities for housing these young women were then available.

Almost from the beginning there has been a waiting list for counselling. In 94 there were only 4 volunteer counsellors.

In 1996 CHOICES’ 10th anniversary was celebrated. Funding had improved. We were providing individual, family and crisis counselling. There were several support groups and the telephone helpline had extended its hours. CHOICES was also providing supervision and training for others who were working in the field of CSA. The total counselling hours were up from 360 in the previous year to 1500.

By 1998 CHOICES had as many as 24 volunteer counsellors. Enquiries from male survivors were increasing, and the Health Authority and Social Services funded a project to assess what was needed as a service for male survivors. This led to the establishment of CHOICES for MEN at the Bath House in Gwydir Street (CHOICES for women was, you may recall, based in a women-only building).

At the beginning CHOICES for Men recruited 7 counsellors and 2 group facilitators. They started seeing clients in January 1999 and provided 90 hours of counselling between January and March. The telephone helpline at CHOICES for women was also open to male callers and, although the two organisations worked in separate buildings and had separate coordinators, they were managed by the same board of trustees and had joint training and CPD provision.

The annual report for 2001-2002 reveals further funding problems but a year later these seem to have been overcome. CHOICES for women provided nearly 900 counselling hours that year and CHOICES for men over 600. During 2002 a training course recruited 9 new counsellors and the women’s waiting list was reduced from 2 years to one year and the men’s to a few months. CHOICES for women moved to premises in Cherry Hinton Road and were later joined there by CHOICES for men, working from adjacent offices. In 2002-3, 45 male clients were seen and 54 female clients. The proportion of male to female is very different today and we should, perhaps, be giving more thought as to why this is. Male survivors may need counselling just as much as female survivors and our service is open to all.

Around this time the helpline was re-launched and renamed the Hopeline.

2004-05 was the most ‘productive’ year of all for CHOICES. A team of 26 volunteer counsellors saw 106 clients; 2250 hours of counselling were provided by the two organisations. This year also saw the establishment of the CHOICES website.

The following year CHOICES celebrated its 20th anniversary and things were quite buoyant. However, this was not to continue. Our worst year financially was experienced in 2007-8. All paid staff had to be made redundant at the end of 2007 (although they did continue to work fewer hours in a voluntary capacity) and we were unable to pay counsellors’ expenses. We continued to provide a service to existing clients but were unable to accept any new referrals although the helpline continued to operate. CHOICES for Men and CHOICES for women were amalgamated to make the administration more cost effective. Rape Crisis was experiencing similar funding problems and for a while ran their telephone helpline from CHOICES’ premises in Cherry Hinton Road.

At this time it wasn’t possible to run any courses for new counsellors, although, rather bizarrely, we did acquire funding to provide 5 whole days of further training for existing volunteers.

Although this was clearly a financially terrible time for CHOICES it was also a time when the loyalty, commitment and dedication of both paid and volunteer staff was magnificently demonstrated and CHOICES did not go under.

Some relief came the following year when the County Council pledged to provide a grant for the next two years. It was possible to reinstate expenses payments for counsellors and to again employ paid staff, although with considerably reduced hours. It wasn’t possible to train any new counsellors and there were no professional development sessions for existing counsellors. CHOICES income had reduced by 50% compared with 2006-7. The waiting list was again growing.

In 2009 CHOICES moved to our current premises in Norfolk Street. In 2013 we signed a joint service level agreement with the Clinical Commissioning Group and the County Council, which appeared to make funding more secure. Yet in 2014 we were told that the county council would have to withdraw all of its funding (57% of the total) from 2015 because of cuts to their own budget. We were in panic phase again, anticipating a re-run of the 2007 cuts to services and wondering whether we would be able to survive. Thankfully we managed to negotiate a smaller reduction phased over two years.

Then, fortunately for our clients, mental health services came under scrutiny nationally, with much disquiet about the relatively poor funding of mental health when compared with physical health. It would clearly be impossible for statutory services to make up the shortfall and so money was made available to allow local health services to enter into contracts with voluntary organisations, in order to increase the service available to their residents. We put forward a proposal to extend our services and we were delighted when the CCG chose CHOICES as one of the organisations to receive extra funding, with an expansion of our service from April 2016. This is an exciting, but also very challenging, opportunity.

We have now extended our counselling provision to Peterborough and Fenland, with sessions in Peterborough, March and Wisbech.

We are very aware that our waiting list for counselling is disappointingly long. While our long-term aim is to decrease this, that cannot be accomplished overnight – especially as the demand for counselling keeps growing. Because of this we have decided to implement some initiatives to support clients while they are waiting for counselling. We shall soon be opening a telephone helpline for people on our waiting list to phone and speak to someone who will understand their situation. This is not intended to provide counselling – it is very much a support strategy. During this year we will also start pre-counselling ‘symptom control groups’ which will, again, be available to those on our waiting list. This will aim to provide strategies to cope with the many symptoms that survivors experience; nightmares, flashbacks, difficulties with relationships, anxiety, depression, to name but a few. It is hoped that this will allow clients to benefit more rapidly from their one-to-one counselling when their turn comes.

We are also planning a one-day information course for friends and family of clients. This will aim to explain how a history of childhood abuse can affect their loved ones and that these symptoms are ‘normal’ in the circumstances. Ways of best giving support will also be covered.

Our last initiative on the current agenda is to provide post-counselling groups for clients who have completed their one-to-one counselling but who feel they would be helped further by the opportunity to share with others in a similar position. These groups will benefit from the leadership of a CHOICES facilitator but the clients will decide on how they wish the group to develop.