It all started with an “Imagine if” conversation. You know those conversations you have with friends when you are all trying to do something that will save the world?
It was a group of leaders from Jackson County including the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS), Community Justice Parole and Probation and The Pathfinder Network talking about how to improve services in the community. (The Pathfinder Network provides justice-system impacted individuals and families the tools they need to be safe and thrive in their lives.)
“We had this conversation. Imagine if we could come together with the people we serve and people could have their needs met differently, in one place. We wanted to focus especially on women and gender diverse individuals because so much of the system is male dominant. We could also be more gender responsive,” KimberLee Whitney, District Manager for the ODHS Child Welfare and Self-Sufficiency programs in Jackson and Josephine counties, said.
The women they worked with had meetings with their probation officers, were searching for employment and housing, as well as often rebuilding family connections – but these were all separate appointments and in different buildings, impacting the women’s time and stress in an already stressful transition time.
At first, they called it The Unicorn.
“It was this entity we all could believe could happen but had never happened before. All of us had a shared belief that many of the people that we all touch — the people in our emergency rooms, in Corrections, in Self-Sufficiency and Child Welfare offices. We all have opportunities to connect in their lives to support them and to figure out how to find places of hope where people are respected,” Whitney said.
The problem was that each organization – Community Justice Corrections, ODHS and the Pathfinders Network were all helping the women in their programs – but they were not all working together at the same time. Often it was the same women who cycled through the criminal justice system.
The Unicorn becomes The Collaborative
Previously, state leaders had implemented the Family Sentencing Alternatives Pilot Project (FSAPP) to prevent opening another women’s prison and to keep children out of foster care, explained Tira Hubbard, Jackson County Community Justice Deputy Director. It was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Oregon and there just happened that there would be a vacant building in the same block as Jackson County Community Justice.
“It all came together and we created The Collaborative, 914 W. Main St., Medford, one year ago. We created this one-stop location with Corrections and probation officers, Self-Sufficiency and Child Welfare programs and The Pathfinder Network and peer services,” Whitney said.
We know women have unique pathways in to the criminal justice system and they have different gender and development experiences. How they come to parole and probation and other systems-involvement is different than men. We also know women are incredibly resilient. We need to work together more intentionally so women can get exactly what they need to be successful,” Leticia Longoria-Navarro, The Pathfinder Network, Executive Director, said.
“Women are more vulnerable.” Hubbard said.
“Women’s risk needs assessments tell us about the pathway that got a woman into the corrections system. What led to her to getting convicted and sent to prison. Women often disproportionately experience abuse, trauma, victimization that can lead to coping strategies that are not helpful, such as using substances to numb the pain of their experiences. We work with them to develop a pathway to get them out of criminal justice system. We ask them what barriers, what stones are on your path. That’s when ODHS and Pathfinders is needed.”
About 200 women come into The Collaborative each month. Many come in several times a month.
Looking back, looking ahead
It’s been one whole year for The Collaborative in Jackson County. This community collaboration is building well-being in Jackson County. As Hubbard looks back, she said it seemed like it took forever to get started.
“There were some barriers. We couldn’t get a door. Other essentials were back ordered. A hinge for the gate was missing. It was the smallest things but big in the scope of things. It made me think about what women experience. Women face small barriers that are so big for them,” Hubbard said.
“I’m really proud of the impact The Collaborative has had but I am also inspired for what’s next – for what we will accomplish next year and beyond,” Longoria-Navarro said.
“I hope we can look back and see this is type of collaborating is normalized. We’ve created a welcoming trauma-informed place that women are coming into because they want to be there.
We’re not writing as many warrants or having to use jail as often. This is only effective if people want to participate. This is the key to make the changes we need to,” Hubbard said.
Whitney said she is thankful and grateful for the partnerships locally that have made this possible.
“Now my goal is to build something sustainable for the future that can continue with any change of personalities or leadership. How we can show our partners and funders why this is the right thing to do.”