INDIANA — The Indiana State University social work department has received a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to launch a mentoring program for young mothers re-entering society after incarceration called Next Step 2 Healthy Families.
Robyn Lugar, associate professor of social work, is the project director for this first-of-its-kind grant that creates a university-community partnership to address the needs of young mothers through the Second Chance Act of 2007, which was enacted to break the cycle of criminal recidivism. The $341,000 grant is the first issued through the act and is focused on helping young mothers.
Without proper guidance, the women could return to the criminal justice system for any number of reasons especially with the inability to find resources to adapt to life post-incarceration, Lugar said. “These situations usually happen because of something silly, like they didn’t make an appointment with a probation officer or because they didn’t have childcare or transportation. They couldn’t get there, and they end up getting sent back because they missed that appointment,” Lugar said. “The mentoring and strengthening of young fathers has proven to be a successful model, so we are adopting a similar model for this project.”
The sub-awardee on the grant is the Next Step Foundation Inc, which is a local faith-based non-profit that provides services and programs for those in recovery from addiction. Dana Simons, an Indiana State graduate student who directs Next Step, helped design the programs necessary to fulfill the grant requirements and help to train those that want to volunteer as mentors.
The incarcerated women will require a special kind of mentor. People who are interested in becoming a mentor for Next Step will have to attend training to ensure that they are approaching mentorship from a place of respect and understanding — not judgment. “A mentor is anybody who has a heart for this work and says, ‘Hey, I can give an hour of my time weekly to meet with and walk with a woman who is trying to re-enter society and become a better parent.’ It does require a 12-month commitment, so it is not a small task,” Lugar said. “There are so many barriers that these women have to overcome that it takes a village to help them. It takes the university and the community to come together and do this.”
The Next Step organization was started five years ago and has local support from churches, individual donors and volunteers. Next Step will use its network to reach out to people who might be interested in becoming mentors for this grant program. Mentors will then be matched through special software to assure mentors and mentees have shared interests.
“The university has been so supportive of this. I really appreciate ISU stepping up and contributing the resources to be able to make this thing happen,” Lugar said. The social work department and Next Step will work with Rockville Correctional Facility in west-central Indiana, providing mentorship for women nearing release.
“It’s the social work department reaching out to the community and asking, ‘How can we do social work here, in the Wabash valley?’” Lugar said. The cycle of drug use, incarceration and poverty is generational and difficult to escape, said Simons. “So they go to prison and they get some (basic skills) there, but they coming out — where do they go? How do they live? How do they parent? How do they get a job? How do they manage on the top of that they have a felony? It’s hard,” Simons said.
Next Step will work with re-entry coordinators at the prison to begin mentoring women up to three months before they are released. This year, the program wants to help as many as 50 women with the goal to help 75 in following years, as the program hopefully expands to Vigo and surrounding counties.
Simons says many people’s hearts are in the right place when they become a mentor, but to effectively coach these recently incarcerated women, mentors must understand the world through the eyes of someone who did not think graduating high school was a choice because they have never witnessed it, or someone whose parents never held a job. “We’ll have to train them to understand where some of these women are coming from, how to guide them, and hopefully these women then see that they have choices,” Simons said.