Program aims to keep women out of jail — and give itself a second chance, too

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Women at Risk counselor/case manager Angie Buchanan searches an online job board with a client on Monday, July 22.  Women at Risk strives to help keep women out of jail via counseling/treatment, therapy, case management, job search, and court advocacy. Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press

Women at Risk counselor and case manager Angie Buchanan searches an online job board with a client on Monday, July 22. The Asheville-based Women at Risk program strives to help keep women out of jail through counseling and treatment, case management, job search assistance and court advocacy. Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press

An Asheville-based program that for 30 years has offered women alternatives to incarceration is under new management.

Funding for the Women at Risk program, which provides a range of services to women caught up in the criminal-justice system, has gradually been eliminated over the past few years, threatening to end a program that has helped keep about 150 women out of prison annually.

Homeward Bound, a homeless-services organization also based in Asheville, has assumed responsibility for the program, assuring its continued operation.

Efforts to find a way to save the program began after state support for Women at Risk dropped 75 percent between 2010 to 2012, said Lisa Gaye Hall, chairwoman of the governing board for Western Carolinians for Criminal Justice, the nonprofit organization that originally offered the Women at Risk program.

For 17 years, WCCJ had received state appropriations that accounted for nearly half of its operating budget. Grants, local government funding, gifts and reimbursements for services made up the remainder of the organization’s income.

A direct state appropriation to the Women at Risk program was eliminated in 2011-12 and replaced by a competitive contract through the N.C. Department of Public Safety. WCCJ was awarded the contract, but it expired in June 2012 — with no guarantee of renewal — leaving WCCJ with no state funding for much of 2012.

Reimbursement changes and state structural and priority changes in mental health and substance abuse treatment services created further financial challenges for the organization, Hall said. That forced WCCJ to reduce the typical daily Women at Risk caseload from 60 women to 32.

“We began to explore transitions in response to the severe funding cuts that threatened the Women at Risk program,” Hall said. “We knew it would be a great loss to some of the neediest women in our community if this program were to disappear.”

Tough times and tough measures

Women at Risk is now housed at Homeward Bound, which is another Asheville nonprofit organization. Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press

Women at Risk is now housed at Homeward Bound, an Asheville nonprofit organization working to end homelessness. Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press

State and local leaders say tough economic times are leading to tough decisions in order to balance budgets while keeping taxes as low as possible for taxpayers, many of whom are also struggling to make ends meet.

“My understanding is that the financial support for nonprofits that had pass-through funding from the state was cut systemically by the legislature,” said Pam Walker, deputy director of communications with the Department of Public Safety. ”It was not any reflection on the programs. But due to budget constraints, these type programs that did not have direct correlation to an agency’s core mission were cut.”

Representatives of nonprofits that lost funding appealed to local government for financial assistance.

“We had more requests from nonprofits this year than ever before,” said David Gantt, chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

That meant some difficult decisions had to be made, and the funding for many nonprofits had to be cut or even eliminated, he said.

In the case of the Women at Risk program, commissioners decided that many of the program’s goals were included in a similar county program, Gantt said. The county funds a position to work with the sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office to identify mental health and other issues and coordinate treatment, he said.

But, those involved with the Women at Risk program say that it’s a “pay now or pay later” scenario that has measurable results and savings.

Most Women at Risk clients face the prospect of at least six months in prison when they enter the program, which equates to a savings in tax dollars of at least $15,424 per client, Hall said. The majority of clients, about 90 percent, stay out of jail and prison for at least three years, she said.

The average annual cost of incarcerating a woman in North Carolina is $30,848, according to information compiled recently by Carolina Public Press.

“The state spends more money to incarcerate women than we do to help them achieve sobriety and a stable life. From a purely financial standpoint, pulling that funding didn’t make sense,” Hall said.

Continuing to serve female offenders

Court Liaison Kim Taylor with Women at Risk looks up court files on Monday, July 22. Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press

Kim Taylor, a court liaison with Women at Risk, looks up court files on Monday, July 22. Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press

Under Homeward Bound’s management, Women at Risk will continue to serve current clients and new state-referred clients without interruption. Homeward Bound has also assumed ownership of WCCJ’s headquarters.

Women at Risk’s outreach and success is a tribute to the staff and the community, said founder Ellen Clarke.

“It’s fortunate that the program is still going to be operating, and I am glad it has a place where it can flourish,” she said. “Homeward Bound will be able to sustain and grow the program. I am also encouraged that some of the senior staff of Women at Risk made the transition” to the new operation, she added.

Administrators at Homeward Bound are confident that the program will continue to have the funds to assure its continuation.

“We don’t know if the state contract will be an option, but we are still going to be able to sustain the program and maintain a consistent level of services,” said Brian Alexander, executive director of Homeward Bound.

Although Homeward Bound receives no direct funding from the state legislature, it does receive money through departments such as the state Department of Health and Human Services. That, coupled with city and county funding, has proven to be much more stable than resources granted at the discretion of legislators, Alexander said.

“We may need to expand our fundraising efforts and rely more on private funding. But, as the community learns more about what we are doing with the Women at Risk program, we may move toward a similar program for men,” he said.

Adopting the Women at Risk program was a good collaboration, Alexander said, as the two programs complement each other.

More than half of Women at Risk clients are homeless or tenuously housed, and Women at Risk has been providing clinical services to Homeward Bound clients over the years, making the two programs a good partnership, Alexander said.

Women at Risk began with community-based therapy groups in 1988. The program offers case management, court advocacy, and therapy groups that provide education, treatment and relapse prevention. (See CPP’s chronology of the program’s history.)

Homeward Bound of Asheville began in 1988 as Hospitality House, serving a growing homeless population through long-term emergency shelter. In 2006, the organization became Homeward Bound of Asheville, and shifted its focus from managing homelessness with shelter to ending homelessness with permanent housing.

More than half of Women at Risk’s clients are homeless or in tenuous housing situations, and thus the partnership with Homeward Bound will better serve these need women, Hall said.

While there is no other program like Women at Risk in the state, women from the neighboring counties of Henderson and Madison can participate in the program if they can provide their own transportation to Buncombe County, said Patrice Wishon, clinical director for Women at Risk.

With sufficient funding, the program could expand to other counties, Alexander said.

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Peggy Manning

Peggy Manning is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at pntmoody@bellsouth.net.

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