VAC preparing to help female offenders succeed
By Brent Curtis
STAFF WRITER | February 23,2013
There’s nothing coddling about the residential rehabilitation program that the Vermont Achievement Center and state Department of Corrections have planned.
The women who will be housed and treated at the VAC complex on Park Street are victims in some respects. Many come from abusive homes and nearly all have drug addictions.
But they are also convicted criminals approaching the end of their incarcerative sentences who would be eligible for release on furlough if not for their behavioral, mental health and substance abuse issues.
“Many have lost their children, are poly-addicted and have only lethal relationships in their past including histories of abuse where they’re the victims,” said Keith Tallon, manager of the state Probation and Parole office in Rutland. “The operating word is ‘trauma’ for the folks that we’ll be dealing with here.”
To prepare female offenders for life in the community — which they are destined to return to at the end of their sentences — Corrections officials are partnering with Dr. Cheryl MacKenzie, director of program development at VAC, to open a 10-bed residential and rehabilitation program.
Best known for its early education and day care services as well as family support services and the Mitchell Therapy Pool, the nonprofit organization will soon add the Mandala House — a name that signifies a unified life in Indian Sanskrit — to it’s list of services.
MacKenzie, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is a licensed addiction counselor, has 30-years of experience working with people with similar issues. During that time, she said her efforts have had a success rate as high as 70 percent. That number is high compared to a recidivism rate that Corrections officials said was less than 50 percent for untreated offenders.
The women in the program will live in a house on the VAC grounds but much of their time will be spent in a wing of the main building that’s under renovation, MacKenzie said, where they will learn life skills needed for independent living as well as job skills ranging from jewelry-making and woodworking to website building, accounting and marketing.
Counseling, therapy and treatment for drug addiction will be part of the rehabilitative process, but only a part, said David Peebles, the restorative and community justice executive for DOC.
“Treatment and therapy are great for getting to the core of an issue but it doesn’t give someone the skills to function in the real world,” he said.
Therapy and treatment also only go so far in helping to build relationships, MacKenzie said.
Most of the women who will participate in the program have known only unhealthy relationships their entire lives, she said.
With the help of her 10-person staff, MacKenzie said she wants to provide a family environment that the women can build from.
“We don’t want it to be ‘us and them,’” she said. “The house will function as a ‘we.’”
But it will also be a house where everyone is held accountable, she said — staff members and herself included — and everyone will be expected to pull their weight.
Residents will be subject to a number of conditions as well.
While neither the home nor the wing devoted to the program in the main building will be locked down, alarms will be put into place to alert staff if participants try to leave without authorization. Those who do leave will be reported to the police for violating furlough, Peebles and Tallon said. Participants will also be supervised 24 hours a day, seven days a week, MacKenzie said.
Beyond the security measures, the program will try to address behavioral issues and “poor decision making” through a phased strategy of earned independence.
The longer residents remain in the program, which Corrections officials anticipate will be no less than six months and on average as long as a year, the more independence they can earn by demonstrating responsibility through work, school and activities within the community.
Interacting with and giving back to the city they live in — women from the city and Rutland County have first priority to participate in the program — is a fundamental part of the program.
Every Saturday, the women will be expected to spend half their day engaged in activities that are community oriented whether it’s working in the city’s community gardens, tending animals on a farm in Poultney or some other endeavor.
Two of the most important jobs MacKenzie said she and her staff have to succeed at will be keeping the women constantly busy and helping them to steer around poor decision-making processes that have contributed to the problems in their lives.
“We need to make sure they don’t have a single moment of free time,” MacKenzie said. “And they need someone between them and a bad choice. We’re going to make sure there’s a lot of us between them and that bad choice.”
While their criminal records are a reflection of those bad choices, MacKenzie said she isn’t worried about the close proximity of the women’s program and the children’s services located in the main building.
Before setting forth with their plans, VAC checked with the city’s police chief and mayor — receiving the blessings of both — and they notified the families of all the children they serve.
To date, only one woman has voiced a concern and that was in regard to a specific offender expected to be released soon.
With her own young daughter attending day care at VAC, MacKenzie said she has no fear about safety.
“It’s in my backyard. My child is here,” she said. “There are no sex offenders or predators in the program just women with multiple issues.”