Building Trust with Reentry Clients

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By Stephanie Hammerwold
Executive Director & Co-Founder

I was recently at an event where there was a panel made up of people who work with the reentry community. Someone from the audience asked about building a sense of trust with formerly incarcerated clients. One person on the panel stated that his clients need to earn his trust. This statement did not sit well with me, and it was not until the drive home that I really began to think through why it didn’t.

Formerly incarcerated people have many reasons not to trust service providers, parole and probation officers and others in their lives. It is not uncommon for those in prison to have past traumas that contributed to landing them in a cell. In addition, the system often sets people up to fail with impossible restrictions and a lack of reentry support. All of these things can make it really hard for a formerly incarcerated person to trust anyone. So why take the approach that a reentry client has to earn our trust?

When we work with Pacific Reentry Career Services clients, we immediately start from a place of trusting them. It is not up to them to earn our trust. By taking the step to contact us or by showing up in one of our workshops, we trust that the client is committed to making positive changes in their lives. From this place, we have to work to earn their trust. They need to know that we are reliable and will be there, even when things don’t go well. This sets the foundation for modeling a healthy relationship built on unconditional support.

Building trust is a slow process, especially when working with a population that has a hard time trusting others. But there are some simple ways to begin that process:

  • We are on time for meetings and are there when we say we will be. If we have to cancel, we do so in advance and reach out to the client to let them know.

  • We follow through on promises and are honest about our limitations.

  • It’s important that we admit when we make a mistake. We are honest and transparent. We aren’t perfect, so it is important that we are truthful when we mess up. This includes being honest about the barriers someone will face.

  • We continue to support clients even when an interview doesn’t go well or they miss a deadline. We don’t admonish but instead talk about what can be done differently next time.

  • Sometimes we develop a plan for a client, and they don’t follow through. Instead of criticizing them, we instead use it as a moment to reflect. Was the plan too ambitious to the point that the client was overwhelmed? Should we revise the plan to create more realistic goals that match where the client is now?

Building a successful mentorship relationship also requires that we give ourselves to the relationship. This means sharing our own stories. Each mentor needs to figure out their own boundaries, but sharing some of our own struggles helps build a close connection to the client. As mentors, we want to give our clients a model of a healthy relationship, and sharing some of ourselves is a good way to build that type of bond.

For more information on why building trust is so important with clients, read up on trauma-informed care.