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Expanding women’s justice: State utilizes ARPA SLFRF funds to break the cycle

Monday, May 20, 2024

OMES recognizes Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) for its progress in expanding Women in Recovery (WIR), a diversion program through Family & Children's Services (FCS) aimed at reshaping the lives of women ensnared in the cycle of drug-related incarceration in northeast Oklahoma.

The state Legislature allocated $10.3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund to expand the program into several rural counties after the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated barriers that program participants already face. By investing ARPA funds into a proven alternative to the criminal justice system, the state is working to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates, save taxpayer dollars and reunite Oklahoma families.

WIR is among several programs under the FCS Women’s Justice umbrella:

  • Women in Recovery offers intensive outpatient comprehensive treatment that consists of 18-month clinical services addressing addiction, trauma, mental health, education and employment, parent-child reunification, and health and wellness.
  • Women’s Justice Team is an outpatient clinic that provides treatment, education and employment services, family and children support, case management and court navigation.
  • GED, jail-based and community classes provide tutoring and mentoring, pre-testing resources, and testing for both men and women.
  • Employment Readiness Training and Placement helps men and women continue building the skills needed to achieve individual career goals.

Collectively, these programs focus on expanding education and workforce-related services in Tulsa and surrounding counties, ultimately decreasing open DHS cases for individuals in the criminal legal system.

Changing the narrative

Oklahoma has grappled with one of the highest rates of incarcerated women in the country, ranking first in female incarceration over the last three decades. However, concerted efforts have yielded progress, with the state dropping to the rank of fourth in the nation in 2022. While there is more room for improvement, this shift in efforts is indicative of the resources state leaders have dedicated toward the issue, including funding alternatives to incarceration like the WIR program.

At the heart of WIR lies a comprehensive, multigenerational approach to rehabilitation and re-entry into the community. Participants are empowered to break free from addiction, obtain employment training, get a job and achieve economic independence. Program services encompass a wide range of support, including GED attainment, housing assistance, transportation, technical skills certifications for high-demand industries, employment guidance and family reunification support.

With the allocation of ARPA funds, WIR has been able to provide access to the Tulsa-based program from several surrounding rural counties – Creek, Osage, Pawnee, Rogers, Wagoner and Washington – to increase access and capacity for justice-involved women, their children and caregivers.

“Families across Oklahoma have experienced a loved one struggling with addiction, trauma, mental health and entanglement in the criminal justice system,” says Mimi Tarrasch, chief program officer of the FCS Women’s Justice Programs. “Programs like this help stabilize families and strengthen communities, and Oklahoma’s high rate of female incarceration can’t improve without expanding beyond urban areas.”

Navigating challenges amid crises

This expansion comes after a critical time. The health and employment challenges posed globally by the COVID-19 pandemic were felt especially hard by women in rural communities, who already struggled with sickness, isolation and limited access to treatment and essential services. Despite these obstacles, the WIR program remained steadfast in its mission, adapting to ensure continued care and support for its participants.

Creative solutions were employed to address emerging needs, from facilitating remote mental health services to addressing food insecurities.

Investing in education for reintegration

The program has invested $275,847.42 of its $10.3 million ARPA budget since November 2023. The utilization of ARPA funds has enabled Tarrasch and her teams to enhance operational capacity, bolster staffing and refurbish housing units for program participants and their children. Central to the recovery program is the emphasis on education as a catalyst for landing a job and reintegrating into society. To boost that effort, the Education and Employment division is acquiring a mobile computer lab so participants can take exams and get their GEDs in multiple rural areas.

The WIR program has seen notable outcomes in its commitment to education. Since last August, there have been 11 GED graduates, in addition to four at the David L. Moss Correctional Center, two in Washington County and one in Osage County through jail-based education services.

At the request of several rural jails, WIR has expanded its GED classes to men as well as women. The program faces a growing demand, underscored by a 150-person waitlist at the Tulsa County Jail alone.

“We see a GED as an opened door, not a finish line,” Tarrasch says. “The GED feeds into post-secondary pathways, providing even greater career opportunities.”

After all, she says, education alone is not enough; employers have to be willing to hire people with a criminal background for this to work. Luckily, the WIR team is there every step of the way – from influencing business partnerships that provide opportunities for second-chance employment, to helping participants get jobs and sustain living wages long term.

Building collaborative networks for lasting impact

The success of the WIR program requires a collaborative approach, spanning across criminal justice systems, juvenile courts, district attorney offices, trade education providers and potential employers in the area. By fostering strong relationships and community engagement, the program aims to extend its reach and serve as many women as possible.

Looking ahead: Sustaining momentum

As 1 of 14 Human Services-led ARPA projects, Women in Recovery exemplifies Oklahoma’s commitment to rehabilitation and community-driven solutions. With additional funding earmarked for a new facility, as well as an evaluation of the program for possible replication, WIR stands poised to further its impact and address the evolving needs of justice-involved individuals.

This project represents a significant step forward in Oklahoma’s efforts to break the cycle of incarceration, strengthen families and offer hope to those in need of a second chance.

To learn more about the Women in Recovery program and get in contact, please visit the WIR website.

For a full list of ARPA programs, check out the Oklahoma SLFRF report. To track live progress of all State of Oklahoma ARPA programs, visit the ARPA Program Tracker dashboard.

Last Modified on May 20, 2024
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