In 2011, a group of more than 25 agencies was convened by United Way of Central Oklahoma to address the unacceptable fact that Oklahoma incarcerates more women than any other state in the nation. From that workgroup, known as the Oklahoma Collaborative, ReMerge was created and accepted its first participant in September, 2011. I am honored to serve on the Board of Directors of this important nonprofit and enjoyed the opportunity to interview Terri Woodland, Executive Director.
What is ReMerge?
ReMerge is a nonprofit organization providing a diversion from incarceration for mothers of minor children or women who are pregnant. We serve moms charged with nonviolent crimes in Oklahoma County who have been approved by the District Attorney’s office to enter our program.
We provide an array of services to remove barriers women face when raising children alone and navigating the criminal justice system, increasing chances of recovery and long term success. ReMerge provides comprehensive services designed to transform pregnant women and mothers facing incarceration into productive citizens.
What are the outcomes?
We’ve been very pleased with the outcomes in a short period of time. We accepted our first participant in September, 2011. To date, 80 women have successfully completed the program, positively impacting the lives of 195 minor children by keeping their mothers out of prison. Our recidivism rate is 5% and our completion rate is 72%. Since beginning the program, ReMerge has saved the state more than $12 million dollars by keeping these 80 graduates out of prison and in the community with their children. In addition, our graduates are contributing members of society, employed, paying taxes and caring for their children.
How is ReMerge different from other programs?
ReMerge is designed to work with high risk, high need mothers. If the proper supports and services aren’t offered to facilitate rehabilitation, these mothers are likely to reoffend – not because they are hardened criminals, but because they face so many barriers when trying to raise children alone.
We remove barriers so moms can focus on rehabilitation, learning to live life clean and sober, and reunite with their children and families to become productive citizens. The definition of diversion is an instance of turning something aside from its course. These mothers are sitting in jail on a course that ends in prison time. We divert these women from that course and bring them to ReMerge where they are given tools to build a foundation that sets a new course for their future.
Rather than step foot in a prison, these moms step into a new opportunity of treatment, recovery, and hope. We collaborate with more than 35 organizations within our community to provide these services, which include: safe and sober housing, transportation, education and employment, trauma informed treatment for mental health and addiction, legal services, and an array of other life skills to increase chances of long term recovery and success. ReMerge works because of its holistic focus aimed at removing barriers and building foundations for success.
Tell us about a typical ReMerge mother
The average ReMerge mother is 29 years old, has 2 children and is facing charges related to drug or alcohol abuse. More than half grew up in a very dysfunctional family where there was violence, abuse, addiction or a parent who was incarcerated. Most have experienced trauma, either in their childhood or as an adult, with more than half reporting rape or intimate partner violence. Many of the women come into the program lacking basic skills and necessities such as safe and sober housing, education, employment, positive support systems, adequate healthcare, parenting skills, family support and reliable transportation. Many are unemployed and/or underemployed – unable to earn a living wage so they can care for themselves and their children.
What is the cost of the program and how is the program funded?
ReMerge is free to participants and their families. The average time needed to successfully complete the program is 19 months, and the cost per year is $17,000. The average annual cost per inmate incarcerated in an Oklahoma prison is $18,467. This incarceration cost does not include the cost to care for children in guardianship or foster care placements, the emotional toll on families and lost wages.
ReMerge is funded by blending public and private dollars. Our public support comes from Oklahoma Department of Corrections and Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Other funding comes from foundations, grants, corporations, and individual donations. We are constantly looking for new funding sources and hope to increase individual and public support contributions in the future.
Please share a success story
At a young age, Lauren started drinking alcohol which became a gateway drug to many other recreational drugs. Pregnant and 16 years old, she stayed sober during her pregnancy. Ryleigh was born in January, 2008. Due to Lauren’s addiction, her life had become completely unmanageable and she knew she could not care for her daughter. Eight months after Ryleigh was born, Lauren signed guardianship over to her grandmother. 23 years old and facing charges that would result in being sentenced to prison, Lauren was offered the ReMerge program as an alternative. She was ready for change and a chance at being a mother to Ryleigh when she entered the program. Success was challenging, but she never gave up fighting to get her daughter back. With the support of ReMerge, her grandparents, and her mother, Lauren successfully completed the ReMerge program in July, 2015.
Currently, Lauren is employed full time at the Better Business Bureau. Ryleigh, now age 9, is living with Lauren full time and is attending school in Edmond. Lauren is very active in AA and attributes her continued success to her positive support system at her place of employment, her participation in the ReMerge continuing care program, and her family – especially her grandparents and Ryleigh. Lauren’s story is similar to many other stories. Addiction is a disease, not a crime. Individuals struggling with addiction can learn to live a life free from drugs and alcohol, and become a contributing member of society.
“When I came into the program I was broken, hopeless and I trusted no one. Slowly, but surely; I started to discover who I am. Somewhere between the AA meetings, self-help classes, and the love and support, I gained a new outlook on life. I graduated the program on July 23rd, 2015. Since I graduated, I have continued to use the skills and tools that ReMerge taught me to better my future. I now have full-custody of my daughter, Ryleigh, and less than a week ago, we moved into our very first home together. I am surrounded by relationships that are full of love and support. ReMerge loved me when I could not love myself and carried me when I could not stand on my own two feet. They helped me learn to live and love again. This program has touched my heart in a way that I will never be the same again. My heart is full and I am forever grateful.”
For more information, please visit our website at remergeok.org.
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