By Casey Coughlin
A framed poem hangs, unnoticed by visitors on a white wall in the front lobby of The Center for Women and Families in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Printed on hokey decorated paper- trying to be impressive, it’s titled “Old Me, New Me.” I don’t make it through the first stanza, moving on, examining the other posters and a mural of painted helping hands instead.
I am escorted up the stairs and into a spacious conference room by Lauren Guyer, Program Manager of Women of C.H.A.N.G.E., and Case Manager Corey Fahy, joins us. Corey sees around 160 women a year and is the only full-time counselor on staff. Lauren adds that when the waiting list gets too long she steps in and takes some of the overflow, but most everyone sees Corey on a weekly basis.
The Women of C.H.A.N.G.E. is a program specifically for female ex-offenders seeking assistance with reentering the community. It provides wrap around services on every level, including personal counseling, group support meetings, job interview skills, resume building, and guidance with continuing education.
“Our program is based on the clients setting goals for themselves and then achieving those goals. There are four different stages to the program but there is not necessarily a time limit. It depends on how long it takes them to achieve those goals, what their needs are and how easily they can meet their needs,” Lauren explains.
The program has four stages. The first: fulfilling basic needs, such as obtaining IDs, and simple necessities, such as toiletries. The rest of the stages depend on the client and relate to gaining employment, securing housing, and continuing education.
“In every stage they have to set a personal goal, a relational goal and a communal goal,” Corey continues. “Reason being, females tend to always have to be involved in a relationship whether it’s family, partner or children. That’s what they focus on first so we have them choose a personal goal which would be the ID or resume or job. Then the relational goal would be maybe setting boundaries or working on a relationship with a child. The community goal for the most part is achieved because we want them to get to know the community, whether it’s going to meetings, going to church or volunteering at a soup kitchen.”
At every step, Corey provides one-on-one counseling.
“The longer they’re here the more in depth their counseling gets. We get to know them, they get more trusting with us and then we can really dive into what’s going on with their re-offending.”
From the women that Lauren and Corey have met, counseled and seen through their program, they agree that the biggest difficulty facing women attempting to reenter is that they haven’t fixed what is really at the root of their problems.
“The majority of our clients have experienced some sort of trauma. It is hard for them to deal with anything else that is going on in their lives as far as getting their children back, parenting, any sort of relationship, whether it be intimate or with family, if they haven’t dealt with their trauma. While the women are incarcerated it’s really hard for them to deal with this stuff there. They’re there, they’re being told what to do, when to wake up, where to go. That’s part of being incarcerated. So it’s hard to focus on yourself and your trauma and the work that needs to be done.” Corey nods her head and hums in agreement. She adds in, “Right, if they haven’t gotten over their trauma then they are not going to stop self-medicating, they are not going to be able to get a job because of their mental instability, so they will start stealing again, whatever it is it leads back to their trauma.”
To find their women jobs Lauren and Corey find they must “hit the pavement” and knock on doors to reach employers. They personally introduce themselves to local businesses, explain the wrap around services they provide and try and encourage a relationship. They are there to act as a mediator between their clients and the employers to make sure everyone is satisfied.
I innocently add, “Oh, so you are kind of acting like a probation officer.” They both simultaneously shake their heads. “Mmmm. Nooo,” they correct me in unison. “Kind of like a job coach.” The biggest difference between them and a probation officer- a strict confidentiality agreement.
“Because of those policies we don’t have to report to probation or parole, which is one of the reasons clients are so comfortable coming here and talking to us, because it’s not like we are going to pick up the phone,” Lauren says. “I think to work with women who are reentering you have to one- be trauma informed, and, two- gender responsive. I think that makes us unique.”
Success stories here are not made by finding a good job, or going on to much bigger, amazing things. To the two ladies who work for Women of C.H.A.N.G.E. success is something simpler. Lauren goes on to describe it.
“For me a success is you didn’t use drugs today or tomorrow or a month from now,” says Lauren. “You’re still getting services when you need them. You’re able to use resources and advocate for yourself. Those are successes to me, not the big glamorous story. I think it’s a success when someone can sustain daily living, find resources for themselves and call us again when they need help. Those are all successes to me.”
As my time comes to an end, I am escorted back down a long flight of stairs and back past the simple poem. This time I take the time to read it.
Old Me, New Me
Look at me then, look at me now
Even my friends want to know how
I held up and kept going on
And before long, the abuse was gone
I smile everyday and look at
And I’m glad that I woke up and
Support and help
Only I know the man upstairs
How good it feels to sleep and have
Survivor and CWF Client