By Maureen Richey, the CSG Justice Center
When Toby Jones first meets her clients, she finds that many of them are shocked that someone wants to help them. Jones is the mentoring program director for Family Pathfinders of Tarrant County in Fort Worth, Texas, where she serves women in Tarrant County Jail’s Intensive Day Treatment (IDT) program for substance use.
“When they hear that our mentors are all volunteers, client after client will ask, ‘Why would somebody want to come meet with me? I’m just a felon,’” Jones explained.
Jones helps the women view their criminal histories through a different lens, hoping to convince them of the value in each of their lives.
“I always tell [my clients], ‘You are not a felon. You are a woman who happens to have a felony in her background.’”
Unemployment, substance use, and mental health needs are just some of the barriers to successful reentry from incarceration that the women in Tarrant County’s IDT program face. Despite these challenges, a group of 70 of those women who enrolled in Family Pathfinders’ adult reentry mentoring pilot program recidivated at a much lower rate than anticipated. Although women in Tarrant County’s IDT program historically recidivate at a rate of 50 percent or higher, less than 15 percent of women enrolled in the mentoring pilot program reoffended over a two-year period.
An award-winning family services nonprofit organization, Family Pathfinders has provided adult mentoring services for more than 18 years. After receiving Second Chance Act Adult Mentoring grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2010, 2013, and 2014, Family Pathfinders was able to expand its existing volunteer mentoring services to both women and men reentering the community from jail. Medium- to high-risk individuals recruited through pre-release group sessions in the IDT facilities receive one-on-one and group mentoring in jail, followed by both one-on-one and group mentoring after release.
Mentors are expected to have monthly face-to-face meetings and weekly contact with their clients, though many choose to meet in person more often.
“Mentoring can be emotionally exhausting work,” said Kathryn Arnold, executive director of Family Pathfinders. Therefore, “one of the things that we spend a lot of our energy on is retaining our mentors. We recognize the tremendous value that returning mentors bring to our program.”
Family Pathfinders now has approximately 150 trained volunteer mentors. In addition to day-long training for new mentors, Family Pathfinders holds monthly “mixers” where mentors can discuss experiences and challenges with their peers, speak with former program clients about how mentoring has affected their lives, and learn from professionals in the field.
The impact of mentoring is evident both in the program’s overall data and in the progress of its participants. One such participant, Kari, became a mentee after 15 years of daily meth use. When asked what she hoped to gain from a mentoring relationship, she said, “Someone to talk to and…just help. I want only for my life to be better and I don’t know where to start.”
Kari “embraced the program from day one,” cultivating professional and life skills and self-confidence with help from her mentor, Jones said. Now Kari is sober, saving money, and gainfully employed—she even won an employee of the month award. Kari is actively involved in her church community and a substance abuse support group, and plans to open a branch of the support group in her neighborhood.
Apart from the mentoring program, Kari has also taken advantage of Family Pathfinders’ financial literacy programming to develop budgeting skills and build credit. She has begun to invest in dental treatment to remedy damage from years of meth use. She is also close to paying off her probation fees entirely, which would allow her to apply for early release from probation.
“All of the things she has now are firsts for her,” Jones said. “She is just now starting to think about what she can do in the future.”