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Putting the right foot forward

Putting the Right Foot Forward

August 2004

by Anne-Kathleen Kreger

Her vibrant blue eyes sparkle, accenting her tanned skin and revealing her renewed sense of optimism and self-confidence. The 29-year-old single mother of two has a new lease on life. She aspires to complete her college degree and secure a job in the computer field.

Just a few years ago, her life was headed in a totally different direction.

She is one of 19 women in the "Challenges and Changes" program, a support group aimed at preventing criminal behavior among federal female offenders.

Norma Martinez Rogers, Ph.D., R.N., assistant professor in the School of Nursing, facilitates the group, along with social worker Susan K. Moore, L.M.S.W.-A.C.P., and Yolanda Narvaez-Edwards, R.N., M.S.N., a recent graduate of the School of Nursing.

In recent years, the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs for the general population has been under examination.

But very little of this research has been dedicated to understanding the female offender population – the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population in the United States.

Dr. Rogers is one of the pioneers leading this burgeoning field.

Because the prevailing stereotype of offenders is male, rehabilitation programs tend to be male-oriented.

This stereotype, however, is no longer the norm. Criminal justice statistics indicate that, over the past decade, the number of female detainees has increased at more than twice the rate of the number of male detainees.

Three years ago, when federal judges and probation officers voiced concerns about the lack of gender-specific services available for women leaving federal prison and returning to their homes, Dr. Rogers listened.

She created the first – and still the only – all-women’s support group in the 92,000-square-mile area served by the U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas.

According to Dr. Rogers, female offenders have unique needs that differ from those of their male counterparts.

"Women come out of prison, their children are returned to them, and they’re head of a household again because, generally speaking, the male that they were involved with is probably in prison also," Dr. Rogers said.

Dr. Rogers emphasized that, for women who have not seen their children in several years, parenting can be difficult.

Statistics also indicate that approximately 75 percent of incarcerated women have suffered physical and sexual abuse.

"From my experience, the mixed-gender groups do not address the main issues that drive the women into trouble in the first place," said Cynthia Mendiola, M.S.W., L.C.D.C., supervising probation officer in the substance abuse unit at San Antonio’s federal probation office.

"Programs dominated by men often result in women’s issues being minimized," Dr. Rogers said. "Not dealing with these issues could lead to relapse and recidivism."

The "Challenges and Changes" program addresses such issues as family relationships, violence prevention, alcohol and drug use, spirituality and health care.

"In the all-women’s groups, I have seen the women become more engaged in the treatment than ever before. They have a vested interest. They have support. They weren’t getting that before," Mendiola said.

In 2001, Dr. Rogers started the all-women’s group as part of a community project – at no cost to the women nor the U.S. District Court. Since that time, 78 participants have graduated from the group – and only two participants have returned to prison.

These promising statistics led Dr. Rogers to pursue research in this area – to determine why some women are successful and others are not.

Dr. Rogers is assessing the women at several points during the 50-week program in order to discover the point at which their thinking changes.

To begin this project, Dr. Rogers needed a valid and accurate assessment tool. Although the federal court system in San Antonio had recently adopted the Level of Service Inventory-Revised (LSI-R) to measure the risks and needs forall probationers, the tool had not been evaluated for validity and clarity with minority women.

Dr. Rogers received a grant from the School of Nursing’s Michigan En San Antonio (MESA) Center to evaluate the LSI-R. This study determined the tool to be effective in assessing the recidivism risk of minority female offenders.

In response to this project, the Office of Minority Health provided Dr. Rogers with a grant to revise the male-centered curriculum that the federal probation office uses with both men and women. Dr. Rogers is currently in the process of redeveloping this curriculum to be female gender-specific.

At a recent group meeting in a cozy conference room at a local library, the women openly shared their thoughts, struggles, feelings and advice.

"My parole officer signed me up for this class, and I wasn’t happy about it in the beginning," said one 32-year-old mother. "But thanks to this class, I think I can move on with my life now and handle things the right way and the proper way," she added, tears welling up in her eyes.

As each meeting closes, the women gather in a circle, place their right feet forward, join hands, and, heads held high, recite the group’s mantra in unison.

"I let go of the need to struggle, and I deserve a miracle. That miracle can be found only within my own self."

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