You are the clinical director at Families Free, Inc., and you oversee the restorative justice programs, including a recovery court program and jail-based classes. What do your jail-based classes look like, and what changes have you seen in those participating in this program?

We are in five local detention centers—our jail-based classes are primarily psychoeducational, and we do some evidence-based curriculums. We are doing Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT), the Matrix Model, and Seeking Safety, and we’ve just expanded some of our jail classes in two counties, so we could spend a whole day doing classes with female clients, and the same for male clients. We also have a specific recovery curriculum, which we call the Freedom Recovery Curriculum, that Families Free developed, looking at all the reentry domains. The domains include housing, family support, concrete support, social support, and even vital records, etc.—which are all essential to helping clients prepare for reentry.

Clients also need access to treatment, so they can come out as ready as possible to reenter society successfully. We have seen clients achieve reunification with family and successful employment; we’ve seen some going back to college, and just being able to engage in a life that they enjoy living, and that’s the most rewarding part of it. Not everyone is successful, and that’s part of people’s stories as well, and it’s really important that we’re always there to support them at any opportunity we have to engage with them.

Your organization, Families Free, has built its programs around a core belief that “love restores.” How has this principle shaped how you provide services?

I will use something Brené Brown said, because I love her. She talks about how every individual is worthy and needs love and belonging. Similarly, our motto at Families Free is “love restores,” because we often meet our clients at their lowest point in life. We recognize the first encounter is an opportunity to demonstrate their value as a human being. So, by engaging them with dignity and respect, we can build rapport and trust, which are the foundation for a healthy therapeutic relationship and necessary to initiate change.

Families Free works with four local detention centers to facilitate groups and provide case management for reentry. What policy or practice changes can help people reentering the community after incarceration?

I think Tennessee has done a lot with criminal justice reform. For example, different departments collaborate on projects like the recovery courts initiative. Change is about these different departments, treatment providers, and community organizations coming together and collaborating with open minds—being willing to see each other’s perspectives. I believe that’s what promotes change instead of stagnation.

I’ve seen changes among our recovery court judges. For instance, in the beginning, one of our judges openly said he didn’t want to do the recovery court. However, our team went through all the phases of team building, the brainstorming, the normalizing, and everyone kept an open mind. We always respected that these judges travel to four different counties to do their job. We read the local newspaper and learned what they had to endure and witness and that they had to make incredibly tough decisions daily.

Then at our most recent graduation, a judge who was openly against the recovery court shared that the recovery court is the highlight of his career. To hear him at graduation talk about the recovery process and how it’s harder than he could have ever imagined, that’s what instigates true change. It’s bringing people together and just humanizing everybody’s experience.

So, it was important that we respected their perspective and were able to bring our perspective to the table. Open-mindedness and validating everyone’s experience helped get everyone on the same page.

You have personally experienced similar challenges to those of the people you serve, and you have overcome those challenges to become the clinical director at Families Free. How has your personal story informed how you deliver services and support to the people in Families Free’s programs?

That question makes me think about what we do at Families Free at Christmas. Everybody knows Christmas can be a challenging time for people in recovery, especially early recovery. So around Christmas, our directors go to each location and each outpatient group, each family and client setting, and we share our traditions. We have different traditions and activities for the clients and their families to choose from. We see this as an opportunity to help them form new traditions and reframe their outlook on holidays.

My tradition every Christmas is to share about my recovery. For me, that was the greatest gift I ever received and, in turn, is the greatest gift that I can give my family, the people that I love and care about, and the people who are looking for recovery.

Sharing my story helps me remember the consequences of an untreated and active substance use disorder. Specifically, the feeling of hopelessness is the consequence that comes to mind when I think of that time in my life. I share my story with clients with compassion and empathy for where they are, especially when they are struggling or stuck in the consequences.

Sometimes, among the population we serve, these relationships are some of their first encounters with healthy relationship-building. Instead of making it about blame, we focus on bringing awareness. We help them understand what led them here and what led them to these choices and help them see there is a path out.

Establishing and leveraging community partnerships is imperative to Families Free’s reentry services for helping clients with their concrete needs. What are three strategies you would suggest for creating meaningful partnerships with community partners?

One strategy is to partner with faith-based organizations and some local churches. They bring tremendous support, from providing meals to just providing space for some of the activities I’ve described. One program we run is called Celebrating Families! It brings in clients and all their family members and teaches the same lesson at age-appropriate levels for the adults and then for the different child age groups from teenagers down to toddlers. This program takes a lot of space and manpower, so those faith-based organizations are a tremendous help and support.

Another strategy would be looking at what services Families Free, as an agency, can provide versus the gaps in our services and trying to target other organizations, such as medical and dental specifically. So, we work with other agencies to provide services to help stabilize and maintain an individual’s health.

Lastly, one strategy that we’ve been engaging with over the past year and a half, which I think is innovative, is employment. For example, Families Free works with a local manufacturing company willing to hire some of our recovery court clients. The company is willing to schedule around all the treatment and probation requirements some clients have. Similarly, a local program called One80 hires people in recovery. One80 is a faith-based organization partnering with employers in the community. For the first year, the individual is employed through One80, but they can be hired directly with the company with full benefits after that.

These strategies are not only about building structure and giving a person a vocation, but also about meeting the person at a point in time and on their level. It’s all part of finding a path away from the situations they want to escape and building towards the life they want to live.

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