Taking a Gender-Responsive & Trauma-Informed Approach to Reentry

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Last month we attended the Reentry Solutions Conference in Ontario, California. I attended a session called “Why Gender Matters: Addressing Gender-Responsive and Trauma-Informed Approaches to Reentry for Justice-Involved Women.” The session reinforced a lot of what has gone in to how we have designed our approach to mentoring formerly incarcerated women in their search for meaningful employment and rebuilding their lives post-release. While much of what we do is useful for people of all genders, we specifically wanted to focus on women for our mentorships and individualized services because of the specific needs they face following release from jail or prison.

What is a Gender-Responsive & Trauma-Informed Approach?

In order to help women transition back into their communities following release from jail or prison, we need to address the realities specifically facing justice-involved women. Dr. Barbara Bloom is a Professor of Criminal Justice at Sonoma State University and Co-Director of the Center for Gender and Justice. At the Reentry Solutions Conference, Bloom explained that a gender-responsive approach is based on the lived experiences of women and girls. It includes trauma-informed, relational and strength-based approaches rather than a gender-neutral approach, which is based on the lived experiences of men and boys and is then applied to all genders.

Because justice-involved women have a high likelihood of having experienced trauma, services and programs need to be designed with that in mind. Bloom explained that we need to adjust organizations so that trauma survivors can access and benefit from services. This means things like avoiding triggering trauma reactions and focusing on building healthy relationships. As the panelists explained, formerly incarcerated women have high rates of domestic violence following release, which means modeling healthy relationships is extremely important in order to help break the cycle.

Rebuilding Trust

Perhaps the biggest barrier to overcome for women transitioning back to their communities is learning how to trust others again. Patty Ayala, MSW is a Case Manager at the Women’s Reentry Achievement Program (WRAP) through the Solano County Sheriff’s Department. She shared stories of how hard it is to help women rebuild trust and explained that it takes numerous people in a woman’s support system to help her rebuild trust. This includes men and women from different backgrounds and both justice-involved and non-justice involved,

Rebuilding trust happens at every level. It takes place in how we commit to appointments with clients and follow through on the things we agree to do. For this reason, it is essential that a gender-responsive and trauma-informed approach include a strong commitment to follow through and the building of safe spaces.

Designing Reentry Programs with Women in Mind

For justice-involved women, a job helps build stability. This can lead to securing housing, improved self esteem and, more importantly, reuniting with children. While there are many struggles shared by those in the reentry community, it is important that we also acknowledge the differences for various groups.

In her presentation, Bloom explained that compared with men, women have more severe histories of sexual and physical abuse. Women also have a higher prevalence of mental and physical health problems and are most likely to have been convicted of a nonviolent crime. In addition, Bloom pointed out that women often respond differently to treatment and correctional supervision. When it comes to designing programs to help the reentry community, one size does not fit all.

This concept was further reinforced by Edward Latessa, PhD during his keynote address at the Reentry Solutions Conference. Latessa is a professor and the Director of the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati. Latessa encouraged service providers to not use the same program for every client. In fact, he said research shows that intensive treatments for lower risk offenders can actually increase recidivism. When we take this into account with many women who have been locked up for nonviolent offenses, it becomes clear that reentry programs need to be designed around the specific needs of women.

Some Final Thoughts

It is also important to remember that gender extends beyond just men and women. Trans people are also locked up and face additional struggles within a system that is not always very accommodating to those outside the binary gender system. It is necessary to also develop programs that address the unique needs of this part of the reentry population. In addition, we need to account for race and how that adds different experiences. Overall, this is a reminder that we need to shape our programs to each client’s needs according to his or her experience if we are going to help them achieve reentry success.

Vanessa Perez of the Time for Change Foundation and Dr. Edwina Perez-Santiago of Reach Fellowship International also participated in the gender panel at the Reentry Solutions Conference, and I encourage you to check out their organizations as well as those of Bloom and Ayala, which are linked above.