The Program for Women & Families

By Jennifer L. Rodgers

If you don’t learn from your mistakes, then there isn’t much point to a second chance. When those mistakes are big and they translate into time spent in jail, the learning curve is even higher – especially for women.

Janet Jones (name changed to protect privacy) had a drug addiction and was in and out of jail “five or six times.” After each sentence she returned to live with family but in 2005 she was referred to the Program for Women & Families (PWF) in Allentown and things began to turn around.

It started with transitional housing – one of the myriad of programs available to Jones at PWF. Seven years later, Jones has a full-time job, remains drug-free and lives with her children in their own home.

In retrospect, it may appear that her journey was fairly straightforward but Jones is quick to say it was the people at PWF that helped her succeed. Jones says they became more of a family than a program to her.

Balancing a job, two young children who were not yet in school and two teenagers is difficult under the best of circumstances. Jones and Joyce Dougherty, Ph.D., Executive Director of PWF, recently reminisced about those days and the challenges her teenagers presented. PWF helped Jones and her older children deal with trust issues, truancy and attitude problems.

“If I was gone too long at the store, they would get worried that I wasn’t coming back…that was bad,” said Jones.

Dougherty said there isn’t a lot of research about how children are affected by parents who are incarcerated, but at PWF they strive to help the entire family and give mothers the tools they need to help their children.

Founded in 1980 as The Program for Female Offenders of the Lehigh Valley, PWF is the only non-profit in the area that addresses the special needs of women transitioning out of the criminal justice system. The name and mission were changed to include families in 1993.

Of the families that participated in the same Transitional Residence Continuum of Care Initiative that Jones benefitted from, 100 percent made on-time rent payments and 66 percent who left the program went on to obtain safe and secure permanent housing. More importantly, PWF’s data indicate that all of the families had no new or founded cases of child abuse/neglect with the Lehigh County Office of Children and Youth Services.

Saving Money, Saving Lives

According to the most recent report compiled in 2010, PWF served over 1,500 Lehigh County residents. The program’s mission is to provide adult offenders, their families and at-risk youth with opportunities to build healthy and productive lives. Dougherty said PWF is also about getting smart on crime and reducing recidivism (a habitual relapse). In 2010, PWF measured a recidivism rate of approximately 33 percent – down from 37 percent in 2009.

There are still, however, a number of people in the community who question the value of using taxpayer money to fund PWF.

“On paper, it looks like we are costing a lot of money but in reality we are saving a lot,” said Dougherty.

In 2009, PWF’s total revenue was $1,190,519.00. Government contracts and grants accounted for $833,365 of that and the remainder was made up from donations from the United Way, private foundations, school districts, individual contributions and earned and other income.

Dougherty reminds critics it costs $60 a day to incarcerate a person, much more than it does to provide PWF services and helps keep kids out of the foster care system.

“We save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars for every woman we can help keep out of county prison,” Dougherty said. “We are the only agency in the Lehigh Valley that focuses on re-entry…it’s about getting support, getting past the stigma and shame of being incarcerated and getting them to feel better about themselves.”

Some of the programs that women and families benefit from include the Day Reporting Program;  Employment Counseling/Job Readiness Training; Supportive Counseling; Transitional Residence; Alternative Learning Program – Helping Adolescents; Disciplinary Educational Alternative Learning; STOPLIFT; The Family Reunification Program; Parenting Education Classes; Parent Support Groups; and Parents and Children Together.

What the Future Holds

Dougherty is most excited about The Family Reunification Reentry Initiative (FRRY). In 2007, U.S. Congress passed the Second Chance Act (designed to improve outcomes for people returning to communities from prisons) and in 2010, PWF became the lead non-profit partner responsible for the implementation of FRRY.

Dougherty said she put Lizabeth Fox, PWF director, in charge of finding a tool to implement FRRY. Fox ultimately found an evidence-based model used for children and youth and tweaked it to fit incarcerated populations.

The result is a 200-question web-based survey, which Dougherty said puts the Lehigh Valley on the cutting edge as there are few if any other programs in Pennsylvania using evidence-based data. “It’s really about getting scientific about this,” she says.

Fox said the process takes about 40-50 hours of preparation in which a well-trained professional organizes a conference made up of family members and other people who able to support an inmate.

“Rather than have a professional tell you what to do, we ask what they think they need to do,” said Fox.

For many women the process is humbling because they think they have burned all their bridges.  But Dougherty said getting the inmate’s entire extended support system together to discuss options is working.

About 70 percent of inmates were assessed in need of services through FRRY. In the future, Dougherty said she hopes to apply it to men as well; “This project’s bottom line is to talk to people and figure out what they need.”

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