BOULDER — In a campus near the river here, a program that focuses on helping women who have suffered trauma is seeing success a year and a half after its inception.
Riverside Recovery and Reentry Program, operated by the state Department of Corrections along with private contractors, aims to provide a safe, secure and trauma-informed program for women who have been sentenced to time with the department.
“It’s healing the mind, body and soul,” said Darcy Hill, who is just over a week into the program. “I’ve never been to a facility where that’s the focus. It’s always finding something wrong with you, but now I’ve got a brand-new start, a brand-new life.”
The program at Riverside focuses on addressing trauma in adult women through a 3.5- 4-month program. By all accounts it’s working well, with 64 women graduating and returning to their communities. To date, only two women have not been able to complete the program.
The 22-bed facility is preparing to expand to 32 with the addition of some bunk beds to create more shared space. There are currently 18 women on a waiting list.
Hill said she “begged” to come to Riverside. Last week she discussed bouncing between jail, prison, pre-release and different treatment programs going back more than a decade, never able to settle.
“It was never explained to me what the tools I had were, so I went back to my addiction,” she said. “This was my last chance. I had a feeling this is where the healing was going to begin. The other places I’ve been, they put you in a room all night and if you cry, you cry. … Here they build on your strengths. They build you up.”
When she finishes the program, she wants to open a clean and sober living facility in Billings.
“I’m 54 years and can still rock it,” she said. “My past does not define me. I committed a felony but I’m not a felon.”
The five buildings Riverside occupies was home to Montana Developmental Center decades ago. In 1997 the property became Riverside Youth Correctional Facility, which housed young female offenders. But as that population dwindled, it became unfeasible to continue to operate. A little over a year ago, the facility switched over to become Riverside Recovery & Reentry Program.
“When we transitioned from girls, we looked at what are the needs of women who are incarcerated,” said Cindy McKenzie, Youth Services Division administrator at Montana Department of Corrections. “What are the needs of women who are sentenced to the Department of Corrections? And trauma rose to the top.”
The program also offers treatment for co-occurring chemical dependency.
Women who enter the program have a commitment with the Department of Corrections and have typically either violated their probation or committed a new crime that is not so severe time in prison is appropriate.
Parole officers typically apply for the women. Applications are screened to see if women have been through trauma and are willing to work through the program, as well as other factors. Courts cannot sentence women directly to the program.
“When we do the screenings, we’re looking for women who have trauma in their history and a desire to work on it,” superintendent Dan Kissner said.
Riverside hired Rhonda Champagne, a licensed clinical social worker, to craft the trauma-informed program that also emphasizes identifying each woman's strength.
“We are focused on building people and on positive psychology,” Champagne said. “We focus on people’s strengths rather than what’s wrong with them. We want to talk about what’s working right with your thinking and minimize the negative aspect.”
The day at Riverside starts with a gratitude circle, then a variety of groups and other activities. There are trauma groups twice a week, as well as chemical dependency groups. Each woman has an individual therapy session once a week.
“It’s a holistic approach, and it’s just working,” Kissner said.
When women come into the program, they go through testing to determine their Adverse Childhood Experiences score. High ACE scores are associated with health, economic and social issues. On a range of 0-10, the most common score for a woman entering Riverside is 8 or higher.
Nicole DeRoche-Johnson, who grew up in Washington and has lived on the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana, is going through the program now.
“When I first got here, I really didn’t understand what trauma was,” she said. “Being Native American, we have that generational trauma. This program taught me we don’t have to carry that baggage anymore.”
DeRoche-Johnson said she’s been “in the system most of my life,” in Montana, Oregon and Washington, but Riverside was the first place she’s been in treatment that feels like it’s working.
“This program has really shed some light on the things I went through,” she said. “When you’re a victim of abuse you just think things are certain ways. Every aspect of you as a being is wounded. … Sometimes programs like this are really your last hope.”
DeRoche-Johnson said her strengths are responsibility, being a learner and achiever and consistency.
“Those are things I never even knew were my strengths because a lot of programs, they just focus on your weaknesses.”
While there aren’t adequate resources to help women deal with trauma in Browning, DeRoche-Johnson said, she wants to become one when she finishes the program at Riverside.
When women enter Riverside, Kissner said, their photo is taken. Another photo is taken after the complete the program, and often the women don’t recognize their previous selves.
“We’re really breaking new ground, creating new norms,” he said.
Last week Gov. Steve Bullock visited the program as part of an initiative called Face to Face, organized by the National Reentry Resource Center and The Council of State Governments Justice Center. The initiative works to bring policy makers in touch with the correctional system through site visits. New Department of Corrections director Reginald Michael also attended.