Eau Claire County, WI, Alternatives to Incarcerating Mothers (AIM) Court
Eau Claire County, Wisconsin is 655 square miles in size and has a population just over 100,000 citizens. In 2014, the Eau Claire County District Attorney’s office opened 3,170 criminal files, almost a third of which were women (856).
The mission of AIM Court is to provide support, education, direction and encouragement to mothers who have alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA) issues and/or mental health concerns so that they can be empowered to establish a healthy crime free lifestyle.
The Alternatives to Incarcerating Mothers (AIM) Court was started in 2007 to respond more effectively to a growing number of women who were homeless, struggling with alcohol and drug problems, and in need of child welfare services or interventions. In its early years, the AIM Court provided support to women who had minimal involvement in the criminal justice system and who presented as being low risk and having few needs. Over the years, however, the court has incorporated more evidence-based principles into its day to day operations: Currently, AIM Court serves a population of women on probation with higher risk and need profiles and longer criminal justice histories (e.g., habitual misdemeanors and/or felonies). Mothers who have alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA) and/or mental health issues can be referred to the program as a condition of their sentence or as an alternative to revocation.
The goals of the AIM court are to hold these justice-involved mothers accountable while providing a supportive environment and wrap around services to ensure that they get the necessary treatment for their substance abuse disorder and/or mental health condition and are able to continue to successfully parent their children. The AIM Court process includes more intensive case management services and provides gender responsive and trauma-informed programs (such as Moving On, Trauma Recovery and Empowerment, and Thinking for a Change) for women.
AIM Court Outcomes
Data as of 2013
- 38 women participated and 11 graduated in 2013
- 60 women have participated since inception (excludes terminations)
- 71% retention rate since inception of program
- 14% re-arrest rate for current program participants and graduates (compared to 31% for women not accepted into the court or terminated from the program)
- As of 2013, use of the AIM court saved 933 jail bed days and 2933 prison days – a savings of $263,400
Source: Eau Claire County AIM Court Report 2014
The following are some key components of the AIM Court process:
- Willing participants can be referred to the AIM Court by a judge, district attorney, public defender, private attorney, community corrections, jail, or human services staff.
- A specially trained evaluator meets with the woman to conduct an interview and assessments (e.g., COMPAS, URICA, trauma screen, WRNA) to determine eligibility and appropriateness for admission into the court.
- A triage team is responsible for making placement decisions into the AIM Court or one of the other specialty courts in the county (i.e., drug, mental health, veterans). This triage team is multi-disciplinary and includes the four specialty court coordinators, as well as representatives from the Department of Corrections/Community Corrections, district attorney’s office, public defender’s office, jail, and others.
- Throughout the program, the Court staff and other stakeholders that are involved in the woman’s recovery meet weekly as a collaborative “treatment team” to discuss the women’s case plans and their progress. The treatment team includes the AIM Court judge, district attorney, court coordinator, jail/work release captain, and treatment provider.
- Participants receive evidence-based treatment services and programming, based on their assessed needs (e.g., cognitive behavioral treatment, trauma services) and are subject to random drug testing.
The AIM Court is supported by several State and County partners including the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, State Public Defenders Office, Eau Claire Department of Human Services, Eau Claire District Attorney’s Office, Eau Claire Circuit Court, and the county’s Criminal Justice Collaborating Council. Recently, the NRCJIW had the opportunity to learn more about the AIM Court and talked with some of the key stakeholders involved in the development of the court and provision of gender responsive services in the County. The following narrative provides some of their insights and experiences working with the women involved in the AIM Court and its success.
Q Why do you think it’s important to provide gender-informed approaches for women?
A Judge Michael A. Schumacher: Historically, criminal justice system policies have been driven by the [predominantly] male population and efforts to reshape male behavior. It is clear now that women are different. They get involved in the system in a different way than men typically do. I’ve heard an authority say [that for women] it’s all about relationships. I’ve come to believe that is very true. Women come into the criminal justice system often times due to their relationships. Women’s personal beliefs and values [are impacted by their relationships] and because of these relationships they can do things they wouldn’t do otherwise; and then they are charged with drug trafficking, possession and other kinds of crimes they wouldn’t ordinarily get into on their own.
Ellen Anderson, Assistant District Attorney: I strongly believe in gender-informed court approaches because the research illustrates the differences between women and men. A lot of women are [involved in the justice system] because of trauma, troubled or abusive relationships in the past. The men [they are involved with] are already involved in the criminal justice system. If we want to change lives, we need to change this dynamic.
Q Can you tell us more about the reason the AIM court started?
A Dana Smetana, Wisconsin Public Defender: The court started with no funding initially. The court was designed by a judge and probation supervisor as a result of a statewide push for programming that focused on assessment, information, and data. The intent was for the court to work with women on Child Protective Services’ petitions, and on issues regarding alcohol and drug abuse and homelessness.
Marsha Schiszik, AIM Court Coordinator: The court was developed to reunify families – and not just mothers with their children, but also women with their parents, and women with other women. Most of the women in the court have not always had healthy relationships with other women in the past. The court provides them with a sense of community they never had before, which is a beautiful thing to see.
Q What is special about the AIM Court?
A Kelly Mandelstein, Assistant District Attorney: Sitting in AIM Court is remarkable to see. It is so uplifting every week to see the positive progress [the women] are making. As a prosecutor, people often say that you just spend all day locking people up and advocating for the maximum sentence. [Participating in the AIM Court] makes me feel like I’m doing justice by working with these women who really need help and watching them transform into productive citizens. That is ultimately what everyone wants.
Marsha Schiszik, AIM Court Coordinator: In the AIM Court, everyone wants to be there working with the women. That is not always the case. You can tell when professionals do not enjoy working with women and that really matters. These women need to know that I am invested in them and their success. They haven’t always had someone invested in them.
Q Can you describe how a woman moves through the AIM Court process? What does her experience look like?
A Marsha Schiszik, AIM Court Coordinator: While the goal is for a woman to complete the AIM court in one year, the average length of time a woman is in the court is 15 months. Reasons why the program may take longer include waiting for openings in programs and the experience of relapse. Women in the AIM court typically move through four Phases:
- Phase I: Establishing the Case Plan; Stabilizing
During this initial Phase, the AIM Court case manager and the woman develop a case plan based on the assessment information collected and focus on stabilizing the woman (e.g., securing housing, childcare, etc.) and getting her ready for treatment. She is expected to undergo random drug testing, appear in court weekly, and meet regularly with the AIM court team, her probation officer and case manager.
- Phase II: Participating in Programs
In Phase II, the woman participates in treatment services and programming, based on her specific needs (e.g., cognitive behavioral treatment, trauma services). She will continue to be subjected to random drug testing, appear weekly in court, meet regularly with her case manager and probation officer, and is expected to find and maintain employment.
- Phase III: Completing the Program
If she is progressing in treatment, services may begin decreasing in frequency at this time. The woman will see her case manager and appear in court every other week. There is an increasing focus on helping the woman to make positive connections in the community and develop natural supports that can be sustained once the structure of the AIM Court is gone.
- Phase IV: Continuing Care
After graduation from the program, the woman may continue to participate in programming and receive support, such as through monthly Alumni meetings.
While 60 days of sobriety is a requirement to graduate the program, there is some flexibility to allow the woman to continue in the program in the event of a relapse. Court staff conduct a formal graduation ceremony for the women, which includes awarding them a certificate of completion. Each person in the woman’s family receives a quilt so that “they can wrap themselves up if it gets hard… to remember what they’ve accomplished.”
Q Have you made any changes or advancements to the AIM Court over time?
A Judge Michael A. Schumacher: We have more serious women in AIM Court now than when we started. In 2007, the Court was designed as a wraparound service to assist mothers involved in criminal justice, and minimize risk to children who may have been removed from the home or still living with the mother. While the women were involved in criminal justice in some way, at that time, we weren’t assessing the women and we didn’t really know what kind of risk they posed. We learned that most were lower risk. Now we have a triage committee that makes decisions about who gets into the AIM court. We take only medium and high risk women – women that we would have thought were too hard to handle when the court started. As time has gone on, we are more aware of the research and best practices and run the AIM Court as a hybrid family/drug court.
Ellen Anderson, Assistant District Attorney: We now use the Women’s Risk Need Assessment (WRNA) to determine the women’s risk and needs. We have added more trauma-informed services and gender responsive programming like Moving On to ensure that we are addressing the relational piece. As a result, we have seen more positive results.
Marsha Schiszik, AIM Court Coordinator: We now have a “Women’s Recovery Coach.” The Coach is like a mentor and is available for the participating woman to call when she needs support in her recovery from substance abuse, positive feedback, information about the court process, or even more tangible support like transportation. This person offers another layer of support or confidential help beyond what the woman can receive in formal programs like AA and NA. The Recovery Coach has no other responsibilities to the criminal justice process and is there only to help the woman in keeping her recovery in check.
Q What do you think is the greatest challenge facing your county in managing justice-involved women?
A Dana Smetana, Wisconsin Public Defender: We have a terrible methamphetamine problem in Wisconsin with nearly 80% of women entering the AIM court with meth charges (see Star Tribune article). It is a very scary, dangerous drug. Meth is really affecting the women in AIM Court as it takes a while for a woman’s head to clear. As a result, we have established a workgroup to address the problem. The workgroup will look at ways to get women into treatment earlier in the court process without impinging on their constitutional rights.
Ellen Anderson, Assistant District Attorney: One significant challenge is that we built a new jail without considering gender in the construction. So for example, the changing room in the [work release] Huber Center does not offer enough privacy for the women. The women have expressed concern that someone (a male) might walk in on them. In addition, jail staff have not yet been trained in trauma-informed care or gender responsiveness. So we still have some work to do.
Q What changes do you see coming next for the AIM Court specifically, or for the way that Eau Claire County processes justice-involved women in general?
A Kelly Mandelstein, Assistant District Attorney: Our AIM Court team recently attended a court professionals’ conference and learned about the importance of exercise and health to recovery. We are currently working on ways to support the women with leading more healthy lifestyles like, offering them free gym classes. Meth is popular because it gives the women energy and confidence. Exercise is the perfect replacement for that.
Ellen Anderson, Assistant District Attorney: We are paying more attention to the issue of drug endangered children. Since these cases touch many stakeholders in the criminal justice system, the District Attorney’s office, Department of Human Services, and law enforcement are all working together to develop a coordinated approach to this challenge.
Q What advice do you have for professionals working in the field who want to achieve better outcomes with justice-involved women?
A Dana Smetana, Wisconsin Public Defender: Justice-involved women can fail over and over again if they don’t get the treatment they need. If you do not help them deal with the trauma that they have experienced, they will not stay clean.
Judge Michael A. Schumacher: I would like to offer a few observations based on my experiences:
- I always assume the woman has a history of trauma. What I’ve learned is that [for many women] who may experience trauma, it doesn’t end, and they don’t get over it. The impact of trauma can last days, weeks, months, or years. So, I always assume that there is trauma and I have learned what I can about trauma-informed care.
- Remember that every interaction with a woman is an opportunity to have an impact on her. I know that oftentimes the women I see in court have had minimal, if any, positive support in their lives. Having a positive interaction with a professional or authority figure means something. I never underestimate the importance of positive reinforcement (e.g., “way to go!”), and look for opportunities to reward women for their progress and compliance with the AIM Court conditions. I do not focus only on negative consequences for relapse and noncompliance.
- You have to give [the women] a reason to trust you. Be consistent with what you are doing. It is necessary to develop a relationship with participants, otherwise it will never work. You see in treatment courts, the participant getting over that hump, when they have a realization that “these people are really trying to help me”. You can see it when it happens. It’s a big deal.
Kelly Mandelstein, Assistant District Attorney: I wasn’t aware of [the impact of] trauma before I started this job and how it affected the women. Now I understand better why justice-involved women exhibit the behaviors they do. My advice would be to educate yourself on best practices—what is effective and what is not—attend trainings and network with other professionals in the field.
The NRCJIW wishes to thank the following individuals who contributed to this profile:
- Ellen Anderson, Assistant District Attorney, has worked in the AIM Court since 2011.
- Kelly Mandelstein, Assistant District Attorney, recently joined the staff of the AIM court in December 2014.
- Marsha Schiszik, AIM Court Coordinator, a former in-patient AOD counselor, started working on the court in 2010, in order to support its expansion to serve more women.
- Michael A. Schumacher, Circuit Court Judge, served as the presiding judge over the court from 2007 to 2014. (Judge Kristina Bourget took over his role in September 2014.)
- Dana Smetana, Wisconsin Public Defender, was involved in formation of the AIM court in 2007. She also participated on the team that successfully launched the county’s drug court.