CEO Sonya Sceats on harnessing diverse skills and moving to a distributed leadership model

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Partner Joanna Thornton, interviewed Sonya Sceats, Chief Executive of Freedom from Torture, in March 2019 as part of our Under the Spotlight series.  Here, Joanna catches up with Sonya again to ask her about leadership a year later as she leads Freedom from Torture through the ‘new normal’.

  1. What were your immediate organisational priorities and challenges in tackling Covid-19

By far the biggest challenge has been responding to the pressing needs of our service users and ensuring we can reach and support them during this crisis.Survivors of torture are acutely vulnerable to the virus as they often live in shared accommodation and some have suppressed immune systems because of pre-existing health problems, often linked to torture.Most of our service users are BAME and the data shows that these groups face higher risks. Our clients are impoverished, banned from working and given an asylum allowance of around £5 per day. They face impossible choices between food, medication, sanitiser or nappies for their children. For some, confinement is bringing back terrible memories.

As soon as the lockdown commenced, we moved swiftly to shift all of our clinical, welfare and legal services onto a remote footing. We created a “Do What You Can” emergency fundraising appeal to expand our relief provision to help survivors meet their basic needs and provide them with mobile phones, credit and data plans so they could continue to access our and other services. We also acted quickly to defend the rights of all asylum seekers by urging the government to raise asylum support rates by £20 per week, the same crisis uplift given to those on universal credit. To date more than 60 organisations from the refugee and anti-poverty sectors and 17,000 people have joined our campaign. The Home Office agreed to review the rates and is poised to make a decision soon.

  1. How will this crisis change the organisation?

We stabilised Freedom from Torture’s services remarkably quickly – now our clinical contact hours with clients are even higher than prior to the lockdown - and we are already looking to the future.

A lot of things will change forever, for the better. We’ve always promoted flexible working (I work a nine day fortnight myself) and we predict higher take-up moving forward. More home-based working and use of digital platforms for meetings and collaboration are inevitable. Many staff say they prefer Zoom based “all staff” meetings to the video-link we used to use to connect our five centres across England and Scotland. But our clients prefer face-to-face services, especially for trauma-focused therapy, and we need to resume physical medical examinations as quickly as possible so that survivors have independent medical evidence for their asylum applications.

The emergency has also unlocked some brilliant ideas though, including a survivor-led podcast series to complement therapy and extend to our reach to even more survivors. Creative thinking like this is a silver lining to the crisis.  

  1. What have you learned about yourself and your leadership team during this period?

I have been so proud of the Freedom from Torture team effort to keep our services running for torture survivors. Not just our leadership team, but all our frontline staff supporting traumatised torture survivors from their homes and those cycling or driving to our offices to ensure mail is opened, cheques are banked and letters from caring supporters are answered.

The lockdown has brought out the very best in our senior management team, despite the challenges of balancing crisis charity management with home schooling and worries about family members working for the NHS. We really enjoy working together and this has helped us harness our diverse skills for the benefit of the wider organisation. Our core values of compassion, empowerment, hope and resolve have been our “lode star” throughout, guiding our approach to emergency relief for survivors, staff wellbeing and furlough (including a “no financial detriment” policy).

We moved to a distributed leadership model early on, setting up a “Coronavirus Operational Command” comprising managers with expertise in clinical risk management, human resources and health and safety. As well as empowering other talented managers from our wider leadership community, this has allowed our senior management team to focus on higher level risks and the longer-term horizon. This is definitely one of the best crisis response decisions we took.

  1. Are there any positives that have emerged from dealing with this unprecedented situation

Freedom from Torture has one of the most passionate workforces in the country and I’ve come to appreciate during this crisis how resilient this makes us. The determination of our staff to be there for torture survivors, no matter what, will help us adapt quickly to the post-COVID world.

Mutual support between charities is another positive outcome. I am particularly indebted to my counterparts at Asylum Matters, the British Red Cross, Refugee Action, Refugee Council and the Scottish Refugee Council who have shared crisis response plans and policies and offered advice and personal support at all hours of day and night, especially during the heady first weeks of the lockdown. We are all working together to keep up pressure on the Home Office to ensure asylum seekers are protected, and this collaboration will endure. 

I am hugely heartened by the ‘empathy reset’ triggered by this emergency. The outpouring of public support for our “Do What We Can” appeal has been incredible. 

Across the world we’re remembering again the importance of human rights as a safety net for everyone, especially the most marginalised groups. After years of austerity, measures by the British government including the uplift to universal credit, financial support for charities and the coronavirus job retention scheme underscore the role of the state in protecting socio-economic rights. Unfortunately, some groups, including asylum seekers, are still being left behind by most of these initiatives. They need organisations like Freedom from Torture to fight on their behalf. We’re in good shape to do so.