Female offenders and probationers face complex issues, but the way most states usually respond to them is simple: They treat the women as they would men.
But the number of women in prison has increased a staggering 700 percent since the 1970s. Now states and the federal government recognize the lack of research on these women, mostly abuse victims, and a need for practices that better assist them.
In a new federal pilot program being tested in Connecticut, a group of specially trained probation officers will handle female-only caseloads and manage them using a new approach that, among other strategies, draws on the women's strengths instead of their weaknesses.
Using a $400,000 grant the state won from the National Institute of Corrections, staff at the court support services division will follow the progress of the roughly 300 female probationers over time to determine how effective the new approach is compared with the existing probation model.
Because in many cases female criminal behavior is linked to unhealthy relationships with men, women on probation "need to be built up more," said Heather Cato, one of eight probation officers who volunteered to take on one of the female-only caseloads. Experts estimate that between 70 and 90 percent of female probationers have suffered some kind of abuse that affects their daily decision-making.
"With a man I'm not worried about his self-esteem, that's not what I'm focusing on. With the women I have to build them up because they're used to being torn down," Cato said.
The little research that exists on women involved in the criminal justice system suggests that their mental framework, including their basis for self-worth, differs greatly from that of men.
Women, the experts say, see themselves through their relationships and make decisions based on those relationships. Men are more focused on achievement. Women tend to be single parents, poor and under-educated, and tend to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with stress and trauma.
The designers of the pilot program, called the Women Offender Case Management Model, want probation officers to begin relationships with clients by assessing their needs and discussing their life situations and past experiences instead of immediately focusing on their court-ordered restrictions and areas that may trip them up.
The model also calls for the probationer to play a direct role in establishing a plan to achieve goals and improve her life. The officers maintain a caseload of 35, as much as a third lower than that of a typical probation officer.
"With this population, 90 percent of them aren't used to someone listening to them," said Lisa Cato, Heather Cato's sister, a probation officer who also volunteered to work in the pilot program. "Just letting their voice be heard is big for them."
Lisa Cato got her first client in late July, a woman who, early in life, lost her parents and sisters in a house fire that she survived. Faced with survivor's guilt, the woman struggled with addiction in the aftermath. In an early session, Cato said she commented to the woman that, despite the fire, surely a horrifying experience, she has showed resiliency in life. "You have to see how powerful that is," Cato said. "By that one statement, you could see that she felt, `Wow, you believe in me.' She started blushing, she couldn't even look me in the eye. ... It was a connection with that one statement. She was like, `No one ever said anything like that to me.'"
Cato said the woman is by no means perfect, but says she wants to make an effort to change.
Under the existing probation model, a probation officer, faced with dozens of clients, initially reviews the court's list of proscribed behavior for the probationer.
For some women, that approach arouses the same type of anxiety that abuse has triggered in the past. With the old approach, "they had the mentality like, we're just waiting for them to screw up," Lisa Cato said.
The program designers concede that this approach could also work on men. Asked whether the approach is not focused enough on enforcement, William Carbone, the executive director of the judicial department's court support services division, said he thinks the whole probation field has evolved to see that both enforcement and rehabilitation are equally important.
"It's not being soft," Carbone said. "I think it's being smart on crime because the effort should be about preventing people from committing new offenses. We all win when we're successful at that."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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