Working with Women in the Shadows

8th January 2021 | Women in the Shadows

The Clewer Initiative

As part of our new Lent Couse, we spoke to Karen Anstiss about her role managing Caritas Bakhita House.

When did you first start working with vulnerable women?

I joined the police service in 1983 and that's when I started seeing many female victims of serious sexual abuse. Throughout my career as a Police Detective in the vice squad and later in the trafficking team, I worked with women in desperate need.

What is the aim of safe houses?

When I participated in large raids with the police, we observed that the women we rescued were too scared to interact with the police. They were fearful because of past experiences and how they viewed the police in their home countries. We wanted to take them to a safe place with a nicer atmosphere and so started working with various faith groups and churches to establish reception centres across the UK.

How did Caritas Bakhita House build on this vision?

Over time, and as a result of Kevin Hyland’s work with the Catholic Church, the Santa Marta group was formed, an international alliance of police chiefs and bishops committed to combating trafficking across the world. Cardinal Vincent Nichols decided that a safe house in London would open, that sat outside the government system. The government system at that point was very time-orientated, so people would go into a safe house for 45 days and then be moved on. We wanted to create an open house where people could come and be given the time they needed to recover, no matter how long. We wanted it to be victim-centred.

Caritas Bakhita House has been open since 2015 and we provide women escaping human trafficking with the safety and support to allow them to begin the recovery process. As well as a safe temporary home, we offer women a range of services including emergency support, legal and financial assistance, mentoring, and help with accessing accommodation.

How do you support victims?

The first thing we do is look at their health needs. If they've come from sexual exploitation, they might need to go to the sexual health clinic for urgent checks. If they've come from slavery, they often haven't been fed properly so we need them to go to the doctors to see how their overall health is. Most victims need to go to the dentist and optician as well. Many women are worried about their families overseas and sending money back to them. Many want to get their immigration case sorted so they feel safe. Sometimes it's the fear of the trafficker and what he might do to their families at home.

The victims who come to us need time to settle, to decide if they want to go home or if they want to stay. Sometimes it is counselling that needs to be done first, sometimes it is just education they want and to learn English. It is important to give them time to sit and work out what they really want. They've often never before been allowed to think for themselves and make their own choices. It’s about giving them back control of their lives.

Do you think victims of modern slavery ever truly recover?

I'm often asked if people can recover – I’m not an expert in counselling but what I would say is, I don't know if anybody ever fully recovers. I think they learn to live a different life. They learn to be independent. And, with the right therapy, and help, the trauma comes back less. They learn how to cope. Many go on to work. Many go on to have other families and the trauma becomes less and they learn how to deal with it when it comes.

What does an average day at Bakhita House entail for you?

Luckily for me there is no average day at CBH! Daily interaction with each guest is important. The only way to see a woman’s progress and current needs, which can change daily, is to be alongside them. This can be done in many ways, for example, accompanying them to appointments or playing cards together after dinner. I also make sure I keep in contact with those that have left as it is essential to check on their wellbeing after exit.

It is equally important to be there for the staff team and volunteers who give their hearts to looking after the women. Secondary trauma can be suffered by any one of us, so we look out for each other.

I run all the partnership work and maintain contact with those that refer to us. I sit on different groups, that develop training, policy work or collect data to monitor the overall situation of Trafficking within the UK.

I work alongside St Marys University at Twickenham as they continue their research work and with The Santa Marta Group as it develops its worldwide awareness programmes. I also work with the Director of Caritas Westminster, maintaining the overall strategic plan, budgets and risk assessments for the house. I often run awareness talks and speak on training courses about victim care.

My day is a mixture of all things and it is never dull!

Karen Anstiss recently took part in the Women in the Shadows film shoot. We are thankful for her involvement and for what she shared with us about supporting victims at Caritas Bakhita House.

Sign up for our newsletter

Get regular news and updates straight to your inbox

Sign up now