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Portsmouth Abuse and Rape Counselling Service: a collective story

Chapter 1

Introduction

This project is about the Portsmouth Abuse and Rape Counselling Service (PARCS) formerly known as the Portsmouth Area Rape Crisis Centre. PARCS was founded in 1981 through the determination and dynamism of Diana Warren-Holland. Diana was motivated by her own life experience and a wider concern about the high levels of rape and sexual violence in the city of Portsmouth and on the Polytechnic (now University of Portsmouth) campus.

This project is about the women, men, trans and non-binary people who volunteered, and later, when funding was sourced, staffed the service to create a place of safety and healing for people who had been affected recently or earlier in their lives by rape, abuse and sexual violence.

The project focused on how PARCS came into being and grew to become a major centre of service provision in Portsmouth. The need for this was recognised by a group of inspired women in the 1970s where awareness of what happened (most commonly to women) behind the often-closed doors of domestic life had increased. By the 1970s, there was growing public acknowledgment that rape, sexual and domestic violence were hidden yet part of many women’s life experience resulting in high levels of trauma, mental illness (over half of women who are both in poverty and have experience of extensive violence and abuse meet the diagnostic threshold for a common mental disorder 1) and for some criminalisation (over half of women in prison have experienced sexual and/or domestic violence 2). As the women’s movement gained ground in areas of employment and equality, sexual violence within and outside domestic spheres took on greater importance.

The initiative for the current oral history came from an earlier collaboration between a group of women working together on a Women’s Community Activism project based at the University of Portsmouth, in partnership with the Portsmouth History Centre. Through this initial connection we learned of the rich, but as yet unheard story, of the formation and work of PARCS, and of the curiosity and support for social research and oral history work within PARCS, a frontline service provider with a big vision.

PARCS was coming up for its 40th anniversary and the Heritage Lottery Fund was open to providing support to mark this anniversary if initially unsure how we could develop a funded project which safeguarded confidentiality.

In 2024, it is critical to reflect on how far we have come and where we still need to go in terms of supporting people who have experienced sexual abuse and domestic violence. It has not been eliminated but what this story conveys is that a group of people was inspired to deliver the help and support needed towards this end. Now their legacy can inspire others as the need continues. The collective story of staff and volunteers at PARCS points to how not to repeat history but instead to how to learn from it to provide services that will meet the needs of women and men into the future.

This project is important because it remembers, acknowledges and values the, often voluntary, work of mainly women who have sought to support others when affected by abuse or sexual violence. More commonly in our society, sexual abuse and domestic violence are hidden, seen as subjects that are taboo to address. The people who built PARCS had a clear vision, funded initially only by jumble sales and hours of volunteer work, to bring support and to offer a chance to move on from histories of violation and trauma, histories that can continue to undermine victims and survivors. No local or national archive currently holds the life-stories, and the wisdom contained within them, of this courageous Portsmouth-based group of women, men, trans and non-binary people who established and made PARCS a reality over 40 years and against the odds.

Our project has created a permanent record of those 40 years of experience and practice in this field, previously only held in the memories, attics, personal conversations and professional supervisions of a group of skilled and experienced practitioners. This project has at its heart a dual purpose. First, it set out to create an archive by recording an oral history of a local rape crisis centre. Second, it aimed to support and mentor a group of young feminist activists, some formerly from PARCS, to engage in inter-generational learning and dialogue, through a relationally-focused oral history with longer-memoried participants.

Here we present some of the key learning from our interviews, where every interview tells an individual story. What struck us as the project team were the synergies as well as differences in how people joined PARCS and what their experience was like. This is a collective story from them as well as the PARCS project team where members of the YFC and core team members charted and analysed the interviews in order to draw out the findings in this document. Starting with key themes that guided the oral history interviews, we analysed the data to write a collective story of PARCS. Like a patch-work quilt, or a woven cloth, individual stories, memories or strands are pieced together to make a new whole. We understand that how people remember, as well as what they don’t remember or talk about, are as important as what gets recorded.

While most participants talked more about the experience of working in PARCS rather than the theoretical basis that underpinned it, the organisation grew from feminist activism and as the counselling service developed, was informed by a broadly gestalt, humanistic and integrative approach. Other stories generated through the developmental evaluation of the project, including the experience and impact of participating in this work, will form part of the PARCS archive.

If you have been to the exhibition at Aspex gallery, you will find here in this document a way to contextualise some of the images and individual stories represented. This document sits as complementary to an entire oral history archive. It is a synthesis and summary, rather an exhaustive exploration of each individual story. We strongly encourage you to listen to the longer individual stories held in the ‘PARCS Grows Everybody’ archive at the Portsmouth History Centre.


1 McManus, S., Scott, S., & Sosenko, F. (2016). Joining the dots: The combined burden of violence, abuse and poverty in the lives of women. Agenda  

2 Women in Prison (2024)

Chapter 2

Arriving at PARCS

As soon as I walked through the door, I knew I wanted to be there.

Routes in and reasons to be there

We were interested in understanding the lives and experience of those attracted to work at PARCS, whether in a paid or voluntary capacity, and what had influenced their decision to join. To learn about this, participants were asked about where they came from; their reasons for joining the project and if there had been early influences in their lives which may have led them to PARCS.

At the heart of their choice was a wish to work with people and to make the world a better place. Beyond that, it was not immediately clear whether there was anything else which connected people either through their backgrounds, education or life as well as work experience. However, it appears that among those interviewed, there were experiences they had in common:

  • Living in Portsmouth: Some participants had lived in Portsmouth all their lives while others had moved with family during childhood. There was a high level of familiarity with the city and its issues.
  • Education: Many had chosen to study at Portsmouth University where one person said most students would have been aware of PARCS through campaigns and leaflets distributed there. It seems that choosing the local university was not unusual and younger and older participants had mostly stayed in their city. On arrival at PARCS, we heard about the range of courses studied including most frequently psychology as well as social policy, sociology, criminology and law. A small number of participants came to PARCS through placements on social work or counselling training but this was less common and most arrived to then take up professional development in the field.
  • Paid and unpaid work: A small number of participants had come through less direct educational routes, having worked in different sectors (from banking and hairdressing to teaching and college student advisors). They said this experience was also important as providing opportunities to develop ‘people’ skills and make informal use of them.
  • Domestic violence/and or abuse: A few people came to PARCS having been through or supported others through domestic violence or abuse and had been involved in previous related volunteer work, all of which added to a rich range of skills and experience valuable to the project.

Living and studying in Portsmouth suggests that there was knowledge about their environment and most importantly, people showed how invested they were in their ‘home’ or ‘adopted’ city.

Although not always mentioned in the interviews, class and the values associated with work were clearly important as driving factors when considering working with PARCS. Some participants did refer directly to their class background.

Both my parents were working class and are essentially now middle class. So, they worked to get into, I guess, that kind of middle-class space — they worked really, really hard and I was first generation to go to university. They didn’t have education, they couldn’t go to university, So, university was really important.

There was also an awareness for many that they grew up in low-income families, often with lone parents but where, despite some very difficult issues in their homes and sometimes at school, there was a sense of community, of having friends and family around. This led some people to see themselves as fortunate and wanting to support others who had been less so. It also energised those affected by their own upbringing to want to make other people’s lives better than their own early years.

Routes into PARCS varied. Some heard of the service through their professional training, e.g. as a social worker or for student placements while others applied directly to volunteer, often with little or no experience of similar work. What stood out was how many described having a sense that they had a personal calling to be involved with the rape crisis centre.

Finding out about PARCS happened in different ways too.

  • Several people described seeing a flyer which offered training by PARCS.
  • One person described being known as the ‘agony aunt’ in her own workplace and realised they could do something with this. Another had accompanied a neighbour to a meeting by chance and then decided to get involved.
  • For some, their own experience or that of people they knew prompted them to consider working at a rape crisis centre. This included abuse in their own lives as well as poor experiences of social services and social workers when they needed support.

While the route was not entirely straightforward for most of those interviewed in this project, interestingly many suggested that either very positive or very negative experience in early life had influenced their decision to take up a paid or volunteer role at PARCS. Growing up in an environment with a strong work ethic was important, as was living with mothers who were feminists (even if this was not the language they used) as well as having parents who were often politically aware and active. In these situations, the idea of helping others was central.

Roles at PARCS

I had a sense of destiny about the role. That’s the job I was born to do. It was a call to arms!’

On arrival at PARCS, our participants frequently started as helpline volunteers and in the early days, this was the core service. Some stayed on the helpline but interestingly for others, their roles changed and grew into outreach, counselling, children’s services and group facilitation, and for some, eventually providing supervision.

As the organisation grew over time, PARCS came to provide a wide variety of services and the range of roles available was related to where the need lay as well as in developing new areas of work. What emerges here is an organisation that was not only trying to meet the needs of women, girls and men as best they could; PARCS was also providing significant opportunities for staff and volunteers to progress from their initial role to many others. For example, there were social work students where PARCS offered ideal placement opportunities; helpline volunteers testing the water who were offered further training to then apply for paid roles and the door was frequently kept open where, in more than one case, an ex-employee was invited to return as a trustee.

There were participants who had taken up specific roles in the development of PARCS and one in particular described what it was like to have a wide remit across the women’s and emerging men’s services. This participant told us about her experience of working in, what was then seen as, a more controversial role.

I became a staff member not long after I started as a volunteer so I was then overarching both (the men’s and women’s services). Some of the women who’d come up through the women’s movement and were working within the women’s line had an issue. At that point, the face to face was happening and I was the only staff member that was willing to work with men. It probably gave me a really good start in where I ended up in terms of my theoretical understanding.

What also emerged from the interviews was a different experience for administration staff. As with many small, voluntary organisations, there is a high volume of work to deliver on a limited budget and this may be separate from the core work of the service. One person, despite at the time finding the role demanding, credited PARCS with her eventual decision to train as a counsellor.

 For most, what attracted them to PARCS, the inclusive nature and the opportunities the organisation provided, helped keep people committed to the service.

Chapter 3

Being at PARCS: looking back at the history

I’m a little bit older than PARCS, it had effectively been there my whole life and yet hidden. I’d been able to walk past and not notice... up until that point.

The old building 

PARCS began as a rape crisis telephone line provided from a disused dental practice in Elm Grove, before moving into an upstairs room in a Victorian house on Angerstein Road, North End. Over time, it grew to occupy a downstairs room as well, and then, eventually with Portsmouth council’s help, secured through the tireless efforts of founder, Diana Warren-Holland, were able to rent the whole building and later the house next door. This first building was a secret location, with ‘only those who had to know’ having the address. It was anonymous — a well-kept secret for the volunteers who attended the first training and staffed the helpline.

The original PARCS building was very run down: ‘it was a bit like some of the people that came to us... It was vulnerable, it was fragile…there were holes around the windows, mould growing’. Eventually and after decades, (April 2018  a new ‘fit for purpose’ building was purchased on Angerstein Road. The new building was not anonymous and was named ‘Diana House’, after PARCS’ founder, with a plaque at the front. Despite the leaky roof, the ‘mice, and bad drains’, most former PARCS volunteers and staff expressed sadness at leaving the old building with its big sofa and kitchen table, where there was space to meet, and as one person put it ‘everyone had grown’.

Creating the history: the Founder and Chief Executive at the core of PARCS

We had Diana as the lynchpin. She was a very formidable Chief Executive.

Kim was able to role-model… this is what a person who totally gets it, looks like. This is what they look like when they dedicate their careers to this space.

With a background in the Women’s Liberation consciousness-raising movement, Diana Warren-Holland decided to do something about the high number of rapes on the campus at Portsmouth University. She said she remembered thinking ‘I’ll just do it for a year, and 35 years later…’. With little money and no official local council funding to begin with, Diana, with a small group of volunteers, set up the first rape crisis helpline in the city.

We did hold a lot of jumble sales. When the phone bill came in, we just held a jumble sale and paid it that way. I mean it was very hand-to-mouth in that way, but we had a lot of women in, y’know, who were interested. Partners, husbands, and persons got photocopies done for us at work and all that sort of stuff.

Diana Warren-Holland

Diana, who died in 2014, saw the work of PARCS to be two-fold: a front-line service provider and a pressure group, campaigning about violence against women and girls, especially in relation to policing and the law, and subsequent court processes, for rape victims. Diana remembered that hardest at the outset was getting funders to engage, ‘we weren’t sweet and fluffy like a children’s charity’ and she undertook ‘knocking on doors’ and considerable public relations work to engage the City Council. Eventually, remembered Diana, Portsmouth City Council became a key supporter, helping cover the costs of their building, electricity, phones, heating and insurance. Diana was keen to professionalise their practice and instigated the emphasis on therapeutic group training for volunteers. She is remembered as a formidable and at times ‘scary’, daunting and ‘awe-inspiring’ woman.

Kim Hosier joined PARCS in 1990 as a volunteer, was appointed as a paid worker in 1995 and became the Centre Director in 2008 and was viewed as the ‘backbone’ of the organisation after Diana stepped back. With a professional background in Social Work and post-graduate therapeutic training, Kim brought a high quality of skills and experience. Leading a ‘sustained relational approach’, she also brought a combination of kindness, intelligence and integrity to her role.  One former staff member reflected: ‘Kim is the only boss I ever had that I missed if she was on leave’. Another recalled being ‘forever grateful to Kim for giving me a chance’:

She was always very gentle, and if she ever had anything, she never did say anything negative, but if there was anything you needed to improve on or do differently, she would put it in a way: ‘maybe you could do something differently or maybe you could do it like that’. There was never a telling off’.

Under Kim’s leadership, PARCS grew from a mainly volunteer organisation to a cutting-edge campaigning and therapeutic service, pioneering pre-therapy groups for victims and survivors of rape, establishing a specialist in childhood sexual assault in 1996, and working with both men, women, non-binary and trans clients. One participant remembered:

I was really inspired by Kim’s drive and determination and sense of where she wanted to go with PARCS and it was a massive driving force... I remember one day — we had to sign in at work and we had to put the time that we came in… it was probably just before, like, half seven, something like that… and there was Kim that had signed in at like half past five.

Others remember that Kim’s light was very often the last on in the PARCS office, regularly working till 7.30pm and beyond.  At the heart of her sense of what she wanted was a service that would be survivor centred. This was the guiding ethos at PARCS.

Volunteer training and supervision

A very grounded lesson on boundaries. I felt like boundaries were very good and that’s given me a steadfast, centred approach to working with people.

 Telephone helpline trainings were initially held in the sitting rooms and homes of PARCS trainers, with volunteers bringing lunch to share. When the house next door was rented, a big enough room became available at Angerstein Road to hold these sessions. Volunteers were impressed with the quality of training, held in groups over weekends, and developed over sustained periods. Training included the broader socio-legal contexts around rape and sexual abuse; legalities, what happens when reporting; basic counselling as well as lots of role play and practice on a ‘fake’ phone line. The training was remembered as both challenging and supportive, encouraging exploration around self, and one’s own sexual history (in order to understand potential triggers) while working on the rape crisis helpline:

  • Volunteers were shadowed for a number of shifts before taking a call alone. Interactions with more experienced volunteers and supervisors in the early days were remembered as ‘really helpful and nurturing’.
  • Fortnightly, individual as well as group supervision provided an opportunity to talk about challenges, and anything distressing, and to share the positives.
  • Further training was offered to do face-to-face counselling.
  • Some went on to do further training, supported by PARCS, in other areas including support group integration between different service users.

Over time and through the training, social connections with each other developed, offering peer-support and breaking the isolation of learning new things and volunteering alone in a challenging sector. Former volunteers remembered their cohort well and their training as a ‘formative and warm experience’.

The men’s service at PARCS

The women and sisters up and down the country, they wrote to me, they rang me and said, ‘How could you? How could you? You’ve sold out to the men’ and I said, ‘well, not really…’ and they said ‘Yes you have. Women did it themselves and now men are wanting to do it on our backs.

Diana Warren-Holland

In 1994, PARCS was one of the first services in the UK to start working with men as clients, an unpopular decision within the wider rape crisis movement at that time. ‘PARCS really had their own values, and they held their boundaries, and they knew who they were as an organisation.’ Within PARCS, it was decided that to generalise that all men were violent abusers was a correlate of misogyny, and possibly a form of psychological ‘splitting’ — a defence mechanism prevalent in society and within organisations, where people view others, or even themselves, in all or nothing terms:

I said y’know, men need a service just as much as women do. And there was oh! They’ll take you for a ride, and this and this. But it wasn’t like that. Men were as scared at coming through the door as women were. They were as vulnerable and as scared as everybody else.

Initially, at Angerstein Road, the men’s service was kept separate in a building next door. Some remembered that women were allowed to move between these buildings, through the two blue doors, side by side, but men were strictly forbidden from going through the door into the women’s building. After a time, Diana and other key individuals decided to integrate and create a unified service. A supervisory support group for those working with the two different service user groups was established. There were those who recalled how men initially mainly wanted to see women counsellors, as most men had been abused by other men.

It was just women, for most of the time I was there, but then, we decided to expand the service to men as well but I don’t think there were any men in a paid position at the time I was there, that did change, but there were volunteer men, male volunteers.

Eventually, the first two male counsellors joined the PARCS team, as one person said: ‘It’s about the abuse, and the support, rather than it being about gender.’

 Telephone rape crisis helpline

It’s a political act to be on a helpline, a rape crisis helpline.

In the late 1980s, as one participant recalled, there was a big desk in a room at Angerstein Road, with an old-fashioned phone on it — and that was the phone line. All volunteers at PARCS began on the telephone helpline, taking calls of up to 50 minutes. Over time another phone line was added to help keep the lines open and there were always at least two people working together at nights. Some helpline volunteers reflected that the hardest thing was not knowing afterwards what happened to their callers. There were regular callers, others were one-off, but when the call was over volunteers had to ‘sit with the not knowing’, as one participant put it. Equally hard for many was finding a way to process and put away the often-shocking stories they were hearing. A former helpline volunteer remembered, ‘we had to learn how to manage, how to leave, and go home, and get on as usual, leave it behind’. To help, volunteers always checked in with each other before going home and shared things that were difficult emotionally. 

Helpline volunteers remembered the support and supervision they received from PARCS long-term volunteers and staff as making a decisive contribution to their experience.

  • If someone had just come off a difficult call ‘there would be a sense, a feeling in the room and we would just support each other’.
  • Cups of tea were made and someone would step in to take the next call.
  • Reassurance was offered that their listening could help amidst the distress.

Despite the challenges, the helpline was remembered positively as a vital part of PARCS, as a place to learn deep listening skills, and to bear witness to someone’s story.

 The impact of PARCS on survivors

I just wouldn’t have survived without PARCS.

People who came to PARCS had been through harrowing experiences - from the initial abuse through to the ensuing court process (if they decided to seek prosecution) – which had previously been invisible, stigmatized or denied. At PARCS they could be heard and believed.

The process of recovery involved not only working with the past but being supported to move forward differently.  As an adjunct to the work PARCS did as a front-line service it began to offer self-assertiveness training, to build confidence in those who had survived sexual assault.  Over time, PARCS began to develop a specialism in working with child sexual abuse, as they became increasingly aware of the high numbers of children and young people affected, and the long-term impact of this on the trajectory of people’s lives.  PARCS counsellors received feedback that was rewarding, and emphasised the importance and impact of being listened to and believed, and not blamed, for what had happened:

It was my fault, is basically what they were saying in different ways… and being able to talk about things and discuss the reasons why it wasn’t their fault seemed very, very important. Particularly when people had been involved with the police and not had very good experiences there.

Some participants here reflected that:

  • Young people, many with complex challenges in their background, had made ‘creative, clever and astute’ decisions after receiving consistent support and counselling at PARCS.
  • Service users had described to them feeling safe at PARCS.
  • Former staff and volunteers also described how they felt ‘held’ and were thus able to hold their clients through even the most difficult challenges.

One former PARCS counsellor said that people were coming out as ‘really strong survivors’ and that their lives had changed decisively through their experiences at PARCS.

Chapter 4

Working at PARCS

The personal and professional impact of working at PARCS

It was a fantastic opportunity. I will always be really, really grateful because it changed my career with all my training and all the learning personally, professionally.

PARCS not only had a considerable impact on survivors. Those interviewed here had described their journey to PARCS, the early influences on their choices and the route they took to become part of the organisation. Many also talked about and reflected on the journey they took through PARCS and the professional and personal impact their experience had on them.

First, they told us about the way in which PARCS was important in their professional development.

  • Not only was the PARCS training considered effective and rewarding, learning from others was important including learning to ‘talk in a therapeutic way’.
  • It appeared that PARCS also offered a place to explore self and increase self-confidence. One person described their time as a ‘massive period of growth’.
  • Working with PARCS was an introduction to co-production before it had been named as a model of practice.
  • PARCS changed the course of some people’s careers.

When I first contacted PARCS to find out if I could volunteer, I was well educated and I had good intentions and I did not have a clue. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know in terms of the politics of this work. So I just walked in with those good intentions, with that education.

The second way in which PARCS had considerable impact was related to personal change and development. While both the professional and personal are clearly interrelated, many of those we talked with described how important PARCS had been to their personal growth. Key to this appeared to be forming positive and, in some cases, lasting, relationships with others, including the children that some had worked with. 

When participants reflected on the impact of PARCS in their lives, it was clear that there were both practical and emotional benefits. Looking back now, many talked about how they had made sense of their time at PARCS as they noted the significance of their experience. This included discovering that PARCS fulfilled a personal need where they believed it had impacted on bringing up children, forming and maintaining intimate relationships and enabling them to find a ‘louder’ voice.

Feeling part of something was very important, very significant for me and I felt very much part of old PARCS. I felt I had a place there and I was welcomed and supported, and that’s a bit of a treasure, really, full of treasure. I’ve got a treasure chest from PARCS full of lots of gems and beautiful things.

Moving on or staying put

Where participants left PARCS, often after many years, it was most usually for pragmatic reasons including moving away, increased demands on their time from studying to changes in paid work or where funding for a project was not renewed. For these people, there was often a sense of regret or sadness even where there was no other option open to them. However, there were instances where people continued their relationships with co-workers sometimes facilitated by PARCS. 

When you left, you almost felt that you didn’t really have any connection with rape crisis. And then I think that possibly someone might have raised that at some point. And I know that we were invited to go back there on an occasion. It felt really nice to meet up with people again. I’m still meeting up with those people.

Staying put at PARCS was most likely to be a positive choice based on what people were learning from their experience at any given time. The feminist values base which underpinned the service was clearly important even where people told us they started out with little formal knowledge about the politics of the sector. They chose intuitively and were then open to learning.

Empowering people to do what they wanted to do, to be who they wanted to be in life despite what had happened to them. That’s why I stayed.

I stayed because I loved it. I really loved it. PARCS flows through my blood and I think to a degree it still does. I left in 2021 - I think COVID made me go quicker because it was all online. I wasn’t seeing my clients face to face. I wasn’t seeing my colleagues and I knew at one point that it would be time to move on and set up a private practice permanently, which I now do. I visualised that I’d still be part of PARCS in some way.

Most recently in PARCS’ 40-year history was a merger with another, larger organisation. For some participants, this represented a significant change in how PARCS was led and delivered.

Chapter 5

Changes in the sector: addressing the ongoing challenges

The funding crisis

The story of PARCS was a story of struggle… political struggle and then financial struggle.

Being under-funded and under-resourced is the major challenge facing the local domestic and sexual abuse and violence sector. As one person put it, currently there is a ‘narrowing’ in the sector with a financial push for short-term counselling and long-waiting lists.

The funding’s getting less and less, and it’s getting harder and harder to access. People deserve and require long-term work and I don’t think it’s right that we have to keep fighting for funding. You know, the funding should be there. If you’ve broken a leg, you know, the funding’s there.

The lack of funding leading to the limited number of funded counselling sessions offered in rape crisis centres is a major challenge in and beyond Portsmouth. There was agreement among those we interviewed, many of whom had worked for decades in the sector, that the emphasis on short-term funded counselling was particularly detrimental to this sector. As one person noted when working with someone who had experienced childhood sexual trauma, for example,

You almost need longer… because you are doing a lot of reparation of that early childhood deficit, or you are trying to mirror that. And that’s why more long-term work is needed.

Our participants said that as funding was limited all through the sector, they were concerned about the impact this was having and said:

  • PARCS had already had to make significant changes to survive in the face of continuous constraints.
  • The limited funding now available in the sector is focused on short-term counselling which is inappropriate for this work.
  • Healing complex trauma takes time, with differences in recovery times for those who have experienced one-off trauma, and those who have experienced ongoing abuse.

Participants here also expressed their ongoing concern about the court system and increasing levels of misogyny and objectification of women and girls in social media channels.

Endings at PARCS; finding closure from the oral history project

PARCS’ story needs to be heard.

PARCS as a small, independent organisation made the decision to merge with a larger charity in 2021, to survive financially and to gain ‘back office’ support. It was the end of an era for this small but mighty centre. The merger did not turn out as many had hoped. The helpline was initially closed and some were concerned that the specialism on sexual violence would be lost. For many there was a grieving process and a significant sense of loss as the leadership and the work changed. Staff, and volunteers including trustees and clients left. Many former volunteers and staff left saying ‘it wasn’t PARCS anymore’, the ‘heart isn’t there’.

 

I guess the low point for me… was watching the essence of what was PARCS… strangled by outside pressures, funders, stakeholders, you know, all of that… It did some amazing transformative work and it was strangled.

For some participants, the oral history interview, where they were able to reflect and talk about the value of PARCS, helped with their sense of closure at the ending of the first 40 years of PARCS. Taking part in the oral history project provided an opportunity to reflect on the decades of work of PARCS, as one person put it, ‘from Diana Warren-Holland’s front room to a professional organisation’.

Many reflected that their time at PARCS was a valuable and skilled introduction to the work they are still doing, in sexual abuse, mental health, counselling and psychotherapy.  PARCS had been pioneering in its role and in the region. Many who had trained, worked and volunteered at PARCS over those first 40 years, went on to find other roles, often leadership roles, in the field. 

PARCS’ reputation and legacy in the city

There was still hope that things could be better, and I found that so inspirational… It just provided me with a real feeling of, ok, this is making a difference… sometimes [it was] life and death and to see someone come into the service, and how they could change and grow, was beautiful.

 

PARCS had a brilliant reputation in Portsmouth.

PARCS had a reputation for placing the personal reality of rape and abuse within the wider ‘political reality’ of the work. Diana Warren-Holland’s initial intentions for PARCS, together with Kim Hosier’s sustained relational approach, created a legacy from the first 40 years of PARCS which can be characterised as both front-line service provider and a campaigning organisation in the area of Violence Against Women and Girls, especially in terms of policing and the law.

Some reflected that while there are more organisations doing rape crisis work now than when PARCS was established, many which ‘have got good intentions – but without including the wider political reality — at best you’re helping a few people… at worst you’re colluding with a state that would like to keep this topic down the priority list’. Without a doubt PARCS had played an integral part in breaking through the taboo of talking about rape and sexual abuse in Portsmouth and brought the issue to people’s attention.

Former volunteers and staff at PARCS remember the generosity of some individuals, local businesses, and some local traders, who provided services for free in support of the good work PARCS was recognised to be doing in Portsmouth.  In particular, a restaurant called the ‘A-Bar’, featured in many of the oral history recorded memories.  The owners of the A-bar, popular in Portsmouth, got to know Diana Warren-Holland, in the early years as she worked from a table in their cafe, doing her best to make the first telephone helpline a reality. They recalled her holding meetings there before PARCS had any premises, and as PARCS grew over the years decided to offer an annual dinner event - for free - to all PARCS staff and volunteers in recognition of the work they were doing in the community, all with little funding while walking uphill against the stigma of sexual violence. 

Sustaining a relational approach

A meeting of souls in the room and that has been profoundly wonderful. And as much as there’s been a sadness and pain and everything else along the way, those moments of real connection, it’s like gold.

Former PARCS staff and volunteers reflected on the quality of the group training experience, over time building connections, and ‘learning how to hold space’ for others, as the reason they chose to stay in the sector and remain hopeful about change. Most of those interviewed for the oral history project, despite now leaving PARCS, and having busy homes and careers, and for some, geographic moves, stayed in touch either with Kim or others from PARCS.  An original founding group of PARCS staff and volunteers, have a long-standing tradition of meeting, initially with young kids at home, for an easy home-cooked meal and as children grew, meeting in a restaurant, regularly over years:

We’re still really, really dear friends and meet up… at least every other month, if not more… just very close working relationships because, yeah, we go through a lot together.

Others reflected on the way the ‘little things’ that created the culture at PARCS, and have now been carried forward into their new roles and workplaces:

I run my business very similarly to how PARCS was run… in terms of culture, in terms of the climate, and the atmosphere, and the little touches, you know, like whether it was flowers or biscuits… the little things that makes an office, a nice office…

Yet others described in vivid and superlative detail the fun, laughter, dirty conversations, and games of football:

Purple wigs, comedy nights, biscuits, lots and lots of biscuits, always biscuits and tea, and lots and lots of laughter… really lots and lots and lots of laughter in that building, and lots of sadness, lots of swearing.

The ‘little room in the back’ where everyone made tea and ‘would disappear off and have conversations there’ was remembered as an important part of what sustained everyone. A sense of belonging, ‘being with’ and alongside one another and a sense of being supported and surrounded by colleagues at PARCS permeates the recorded interviews:

In all the jobs I’ve had… everyone believed in me so much. Everyone believed in everybody and yeah, I think that was really important to help me grow… If I needed to have a little bit of a cry after a session you know, I could do that, and there’s always someone there to say, you know, ‘tell me about it. Let’s put the kettle on’. So that’s what was great about PARCS.

When that sense of support ended, with a new era at PARCS, it was less easy to support clients.

 Lessons learnt at PARCS

What I have discovered to be true is that the biggest beneficiary of my efforts to be of service to others is me. Like, I grow, I’m the person who has grown the most. Haven’t done it for that reason, but I feel very much that I have been nurtured by my chosen path.

Many reported on the benefits to their clinical practice from beginning their work at PARCS. These included learning how to manage the demands of client work, learning how to use clinical supervision, and how to create and rely on a wider support base to deal with the emotional demands of the work. The important benefits of learning how to listen in a person-centred way were also reported on as a lesson learnt at PARCS:

I would say that it’s 100% given me confidence to work with the clients that I work with. Listening in a very ground way to what’s going on for somebody. I’d say definitely put me in a really different position in terms of working with people… after being at PARCS.

Along with these professional skills, former PARCS staff and volunteers recalled the wider learnings, about self and others, they took away from their time at PARCS. It gave them the confidence ‘in what I could’ and in what their clients could do, and it gave them a sense of the importance of ‘voicing what is right’:

I think self-belief, and I also think the learning of how people are really resilient. And clients might not think they’re strong, but they’re strong…and I guess me too, I’m resilient and I’m a strong person. So I’ve learnt that from PARCS. So yeah, that’s what we’re going to take away.

 Some reflected on the overall approach at PARCS which was described as ‘explorative’:

We were always sort of learning and growing… let’s not just do things the way they’re doing them or to tick a box.

Others reported on the intergenerational learning from their time at PARCS.  As some former volunteers became parents, they described the importance of teaching boundaries and bodily awareness to children, and the younger generations, from an early age rather than putting it off until they are older.

Chapter 6

Takeaways from the oral history interviews

Today, rape crisis work is more widely known about than when PARCS first began running the volunteer helpline. One former volunteer remembered that in the late 1980s, when she told people she was volunteering at a rape crisis centre, most had no idea what she meant:

When I told them I was going to work at rape crisis in Portsmouth, people were ringing me up and saying, so where’s this rent-crisis service? No, it’s not rent. It’s rape. And they were: Really? Really?, and that was it. Stop the conversation. People just couldn’t get their heads around it at all. Now so many people know about PARCS. I think there has been a lot of progress and change since then.

Despite this the stigma and silencing continue. ’Rape and sexual abuse continue and overall most people don’t want to talk about rape.’ 

The purpose of this project stretches beyond telling the story of PARCS. The interviews have all contributed to that story but, importantly, they also contribute to the future of initiatives designed to support those experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse. These have not been eliminated in the past 40 years and are on the increase 1. In the current climate, it may be ever more challenging to secure political and financial support for local rape-crisis and domestic violence services. Here we draw together some of the key strengths and vulnerabilities of work in the sector identified by participants. 

  • While there was a sense of 40 years lost at the outset of the project, individuals had in fact been out and planted themselves in the community and other organisations like dandelions in concrete. In this sense, all the participants have survived whether sexual abuse or domestic violence or navigating the changing sector.
  • There is resilience in the sector, evidenced in this project through, first, the commitment of people over 40 years to PARCS and second, through the emergence and consolidation of a new Young Feminist Collective representing activism within and beyond the PARCS project.
  • While there are ongoing debates and some divisions in the rape crisis movement about, for example, definitions of feminism; being a woman; and the drivers for provision where the politics enter and impact funding, the interviews here suggest that this work is and needs to be practice-based and experience-led in the desire to support people in pain.
  • The interviews demonstrated that PARCS worked on an inclusive basis and it was clear that for most people this enabled productive and empowering working relations which they took into their interactions with clients.
  • The involvement of local people was important. We learnt that making a practical difference to the lived experience of people in their community was also critical.
  • The wish to invest their time, energy and skill was as strong a driver as theoretical and/or political debates about how to deliver a service.

1 ons.gov.uk (Domestic abuse in England and Wales overview: November 2023, Figures on domestic abuse from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, police recorded crime, and other organisations.)

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