Community Family Life Services Return Back to Their Roots

A photo of Community Family Life Service (CFLS) new Executive Director, Ashley McSwain.

Community Family Life Service (CFLS)

Under new leadership, Community Family Life Services (CFLS) is returning to its roots to focus specifically on helping women re-enter society from prison. CFLS was founded by First Trinity Lutheran Church in 1969 to serve ex-offenders, primarily men, who were re-entering open society.

This is why the organization in located in Judiciary Square. Subsequent to its founding, the nonprofit agency evolved to meet the changing needs of low-income families and individuals in the District of Columbia, including the homeless. However, new Executive Director Ashley McSwain believes one of the most urgent and unmet issues today is assisting women who are making the transition from prison to open society. Women re-entering society face different challenges than men. Because of the lack of available programs to help these women, CFLS has been transitioning over the last month to primarily focus on women’s reentry. Services provided by CFLS and other groups are critical to the successful re-integration of this population.

“CFLS has been around for 46 years, and when they started, they were serving men coming out of prison,” McSwain said in an interview with Street Sense. “Over the years, the organization has sort of shifted to doing other things, not really reentry.”

Since the model of the criminal justice system is dominated by male offenders, there are a lot more programs to support men than there are women. However, women have a host of needs which vary greatly from men, especially women with children. And the population of women in prison is increasing at rapid rates. According to the Sentencing Project, between 1980 and 2010, the number of women in prison has increased by 646 percent.

“Women coming out of prison were usually heads of households before they went into prison, when they come home they need to take custody of those children and that’s not usually the case for men,” said McSwain. “Women are very relational, so women need you to build a relationship with them before they actually do what you ask them to do, and that’s very different from men.”

CFLS now offers a host of services designed for women, such as long-term and transitional housing, mentorship, employment guidance and opportunities, food and clothing, medical case management, and family support. They also partner with different organizations, such as the Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizen Affairs (ORCA), to provide other programs and training services. The partnership with ORCA is still being negotiated, but McSwain also worked with them when she on staff with Our Place DC.

ORCA has been working on women’s reentry for about two years, according to ORCA Deputy Director Shae Harris. ORCA’s strong suit is connecting the dots to help the women reenter society successfully. They do events within halfway houses, such as creating vision boards and hosting panels, to help motivate the women and renew their sense of self. They also help the women keep in contact with their families by providing the families with outreach trips to visit loved ones in prison.

ORCA also provides some services and programs for women that are still in prison. But Diane Carter-Bryant, a community health worker and HIV case manager for CFLS, said things were much different when she went through the reentry process 20 years ago.

“Reentry did not start in prison, when it should start. It started when I came home and found that the programs that I was given—once I got to them after trying to find carfare to get to them—didn’t work. They didn’t work for me,” said Carter-Bryant. “There was always a waiting period or you had to have certain credentials. There’s women who come home without birth certificates, social security cards, or proper ID to even get in the door … so without those credentials, you can’t really get the help that you need.”

Today, reentry programs are trying to make more efforts to connect with women who are in prison. Sarah Mullen, who is a reentry advocate and community organizer at CFLS, works to try and create a coalition of service providers to get together and serve women who are being released from prison. “Right now, I’m also working directly with the women. I go into the jail every week and I meet with [them] there, and we get release bands, we conduct needs assessments, and we link them to programs and services in the community to support them in their release. Then, I follow them as they release into the community and connect them to CFLS programs and connect them to our network of community providers.”

ORCA also provides other services such as customer service training and employment opportunities that are usually in construction and manual labor. Digital training is also available to help women keep up with the technology changes that have happened since they were locked up.

“Even if you’ve been gone for a year and come back, technology has changed tremendously and the city has changed tremendously,” said Harris. “Some of the people don’t know how to use a mouse, or they have the basics but don’t know how to attach a resume to an email, which is essential when getting a job.”

Harris also notes that when they are referring clients to CFLS, they know they clients are going to get the best service and find what they need, which is why ORCA is currently trying to form a partnership with CFLS. ORCA partners with the Department of Behavioral Health, Department of Disability Services, Byte Back, Bread for the City, Hope House, Department of Employment Services, Department of General Services, Department of Parks and Recreation, Department of Public Works, Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, Strive DC, Martha’s Table, Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation, and Smart from the Start.

“We have received a large mandate to serve all returning citizens and we know there’s at least 60,000 citizens returning in DC,” Harris said. We know that we can’t serve them all, so that’s why we have these partnerships to refer our clients to so they can get the services that they need.”

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