National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women

Innovator Profile: Off the Streets

Off the StreetsSM (OTS) assists women involved in prostitution move towards safety, recovery, empowerment, and community reintegration by providing a safe, welcoming, and non-judgmental environment for women who are involved in prostitution.  Prostitution affects not only women and their families, but also affects community environment, safety, and appeal. OTS provides opportunities for women to become positive, productive members of the community.

OTS works with any woman who has experienced prostitution and wants to make life changes. The program accepts referrals from many sources including self-referrals, criminal justice system referrals, and other treatment programs.  The program helps women to explore positive life changes and focuses on areas including emergency needs, housing, medical care, mental health, substance abuse, education, and employment.  Women participate in daily education and support groups that assist them in their recovery and empowerment process and addresses topics such as life skills, health and well-being, relationships, and self-esteem.  Referrals are also made to community resources as needed.

Peer staff work with clients to coordinate the services needed to work on their recovery plan.  All services are coordinated on an individual basis to fit each woman’s unique needs. Clients participate in daily services on site, which help foster a sense of community and self-esteem.  These may include journaling, employment and life coaching, and a knitting circle.

OTS staff also make referrals to other community-based programs for:

Each woman’s story is her own, but each one is a story of survival. The women end up on the streets for various reasons such as basic survival needs (food, diapers for a grandchild, housing), addiction, or as a result of prior abuse.

  • Housing
  • Emergency needs
  • Trauma recovery
  • Mental health services
  • Substance abuse treatment
  • Healthcare
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Family Services

Each woman makes progress in her recovery at her own pace.  If a woman is referred by the Court or Probation, she may be required to participate in a specified amount of services.  However, the program will work with women as long as needed, with most women participating in the program for four to six months and some up to one year.  Participants in the program range in age from 18 to 57 years old, with 35 as the average age.  Women of all races and ethnicity participate in the program.  The educational levels of the women vary, from those without a high school diploma to those with a master’s degree. The program serves up to 25 participants at one time, with additional women receiving services through the OTS continuing care program.

Off the StreetsSM is the recipient of several awards, and is recognized nationally as one of the few programs in the country to address this population of women.

Interview with Mary Carol Melton, Program Director of Off the Streets

Q What inspired you to begin Off the Streets?

A The Hamilton County Court Administrator responded to a Request for Proposals from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) in the late 1990’s to look more critically at gender issues in the criminal justice system.  This policy group was tasked with bringing practitioners together to look at women in the criminal justice system in our county.  One identified issue was the increase of prostitution in Cincinnati affecting jail overcrowding and concerns from the community.  Members of the criminal justice system, social service, and treatment agencies recognized that something needed to be done. Women were being arrested for solicitation, serving their time and getting out of jail with no new skills and without addressing any issues that would lead to rehabilitation. The women would go back to the streets, the only life they knew, and the process would start again. It was a vicious cycle that was costing taxpayers and burdening the justice system.

In response to this concern, The Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati provided funding for a team of 30 people from 20 community agencies to jumpstart the planning process and eventually create OTS. The planning group included judges, treatment providers, probation, prosecution, public defenders, members of the faith community, and women in recovery from prostitution.  Their examination of the issues revealed, among other things, that in the previous two years, not one woman involved in prostitution had successfully completed probation.

Cincinnati Union Bethel became the lead agency and the first group of women joined the program in 2006.

Q How did that initial analysis help to inform your work? 

A We learned that women involved in prostitution were not engaging in the system long enough to access services that could help them, and were an incredibly underserved population.  OTS provides for basic needs first (food, clothes, and housing) and builds from there.  Our program is designed to leverage other community resources, so that we can get women the help they need.  The only criteria for women to be accepted into our program is that they must have involvement with prostitution and that they are medically/clinically stable.  They are then paired with a peer facilitator to help them to figure out what issues they need to work on.

Q What makes OTS so successful? 

A OTS attributes its success to several factors:

  • Community collaboration has been key. The program is able to take advantage of existing community services without duplicating services.
  • The program is successful because of the peer-facilitator model. Each woman is paired with a facilitator who has survived the streets herself so she understands what each woman is experiencing. This structure also establishes an open, safe environment for the women to share their stories. There is no judging or shame.
  • OTS addresses issues specifically related to prostitution while meeting other treatment needs. As an example, a large majority of the participants are involved in drug use so we connect the women to addiction treatment services and self-help programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous, while they work on other life skills issues through the program.
  • The OTS staff is small but very efficient.  Women participate in programs all day, and we have community partners (agencies or women from the community) present and provide programming in support of our efforts.  That assistance takes the form of everything from journaling to working on building healthier relationships to a medical van that comes weekly to conduct medical and mental health assessments and services.
  • Finally, the program is personalized. Each woman is paired with a facilitator who assists her to design an individualized plan to meet her needs and accomplish her goals – such as returning to school or gaining employment.

Initially, court referrals comprised 70% of the program’s population, with 30% coming from self-referrals.  Over the years, those figures have been reversed, with approximately 70% of current program participants self-referring into the program.   Program staff attribute this shift to recommendations to women currently involved in prostitution from their peers who have participated in OTS.

Q What compelling lessons have emerged as a result of your work?  

  • A Communities who do this work collaboratively will succeed. Our planning process was invaluable to the success of OTS.  All of the stakeholders involved (judges, probation, law enforcement, and others) believed in our plan (because it was also their plan) and recognized what it could bring to these women’s lives and our community.
  • We have also been diligent about collecting data and engaging in continuous quality improvement.  OTS tracks recidivism data for all participants and reports a very low recidivism rate in terms of criminal justice system involvement.
  • We have learned that the ability to participate in at least 30 days of OTS is a good predictor of whether women will successfully complete the program.  As a result, we have built in more structured guidelines and intensive services in the first thirty days of programming.
  • We offer a continuing care group as a way to continue to help women after they leave the on-site program.  If a woman has an issue or is worried about relapse, someone from OTS will be there to help them.  We make the assumption that this population of women has a high risk of recidivism, and we want to be there for them.

Q What has inspired you in this work?

A Because I facilitated the initial planning process, I witnessed firsthand a willingness to come together – regardless of discipline – to come together and work toward solutions.  Ours was a “pure” planning process – all of us were focused on a common goal.

Most inspiring, of course, are the women themselves, including members of our own staff.  To think about what it takes for a woman to come into our program, to dig deep, and to make major life changes, is amazing.  I am in awe of the power of the human spirit.  The women in our program are creative, talented, resourceful, and have experienced more in their lifetimes than I can even imagine.

Q What positive changes or successes have you seen occurring in the field of gender-informed practices?

A The system is starting to pay attention to women and their pathways to crime.  We now have policy teams that shed light on the needs of women in the system.  The focus that NIC has kept on this issue over the years has been remarkable.  These efforts have brought to the surface that we need to consider the trauma that leads women to engage in crime, and that we need to involve women in the process of their recovery.  If we don’t address these core underlying issues, we will never get to change.

Also, treatment and justice systems here and in other places have created cross learning systems that break down silos and allow us to work together on the issues facing women.

Q What do you think is the greatest challenge facing the field in implementing gender-responsive strategies?

A The criminal justice system, by its very nature, can be seen as inflexible.  However, my experience is that it too, is looking for community problem solving that goes beyond arrest and incarceration.  We need to continue to pay attention to the evidence and literature about women.  There is a great need to translate the academic literature into a format that is helpful for criminal justice, treatment, and community practitioners.  We need to encourage practitioners to understand how this evidence-based literature will be helpful to them, and how this information will be helpful to the women that we serve.  We need to focus our efforts on encouraging criminal justice and other community based decisionmakers to choose interventions for women that work.

Q What advice do you have for professionals working in the field who want to achieve better outcomes with the justice-involved women with whom they work?

A Any effort like the one we undertook needs a champion (or champions) to look at the problem in a different way.  The biggest job that anyone heading up something like this has is being a cheerleader- and helping everyone at the table to see themselves in the discussion, and to find mutually agreed upon common ground.   It takes people with a vision to believe that change is possible and to make that change happen.  It is easy to think that things can’t change, but when you get the right people to the table for the right reasons, anything is possible.

For more information about, or to learn how you can support the efforts of, Off the Streets, visit their web site at http://www.cinunionbethel.org/index.php/how-we-help/off-the-streets or contact Mary Carol Melton, Executive Vice President of Cincinnati Union Bethel by email at mcmelton@cinunionbethel.org  or by phone at (513) 768-6905.

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