TAVARES — Tony Deaton understands how difficult it can be for convicted felons to start over once they get out of prison.
“All of our offenders coming out of prison are stuck,” said Deaton, the probation director for the Lake County Department of Conservation and Compliance’s Probation Services Division. “They’re denied housing, they’re denied employment, they’re denied credit. And if they don’t have community support, they can fall back into recidivism.”
Helping released inmates deal with these issues isn’t easy at a time of steep budget cuts that’s been putting the squeeze on social service providers and state and county agencies alike, Deaton said.
“With budget cuts, we can only do so much,” Deaton said. “My officers supervise 200 offenders each.”
Last January, the Probation Division partnered with the Florida Department of Corrections and Probation and Parole Offices to hold a Re-entry Fair at the Lake County Agricultural Center in Tavares. More than thirty agencies were brought together to assist offenders returning to the community from jail. The fair was a recognition that offenders face a complex number of challenges as they try to straighten out their lives, including a rough job market, difficulty obtaining credit, and sometimes the need to cope with substance abuse problems.
“If we can kind of help break that cycle and transform poverty by giving them the lift they need, that really makes a difference,” Deaton said.
Now the Probation Services Division is ready to take a different approach — creating a local, Lake County version of a program called Open Table, which encourages churches to partner with probation programs to set up tables to help ex-offenders get restored to the community.
The Partners Investing in People Committee– which helped coordinate the Re-entry fair in January — and the Probation Services Division introduced the concept to the county on June 15 in Leesburg.
“We will be the first in Florida to implement this program, so we are very excited,” said Susan Kowalski, a member of the Partners Investing in People Committee.
Deaton said he first learned about Open Table Poverty Transformation model last March, during a gathering of the American Parole and Probation Association in Orlando. There was a presentation by probation officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, who had created this unique faith-based program.
“The Open Table model is what we’re working on,” Deaton said. “Our facilitators from Arizona who brought the model to us are coming back next month. They have been working with the faith community out there, and have volunteers from the churches. They invite a person living in poverty to come to the Open Table, and help them develop a life plan for their future. The churches have somebody who offers to help them with transportation, networking, budgeting, legal issues, substance abuse and education and their occupation – all those things. They really engage the individual and help them navigate back into the community.”
Deaton said he was impressed with the concept and thought it was a great model that could work in Lake County as well.
“It’s pretty difficult,” he said of the path facing ex-offenders getting out of jail or prison. “We provide a lot of support for people at the poverty level who are homeless, but once they start to rise up above that, there’s no support for them. So if the churches are able to help lift people up, these people will be much more successful. The people they’re bringing to the table are often ex-offenders stuck in poverty.”
Without that support, Deaton said, his office sees what happens to offenders who fall through the cracks.
“We see them back in a week or a month or a year, and some of them will relapse into substance abuse or crime,” he said.
Since learning about the program, Deaton said he’s reached out to local churches and civic groups like the Kiwanis and Rotary Club to see if they’ll get on board. So far, he said, the response has been positive. Jon Katov, the founder of Open Table, will visit Lake County on July 18 to help Deaton and his office move forward on this.
“This is a powerful civic model where the faith-based community is the centerpiece, where they will welcome people into their church and provide them with support,” he said. “This is kind of a networking model, and we’re trying to see if we can establish this in Lake County. Maybe we can use this model, really, to transform our community.”
Since unveiling the program in Leesburg, Deaton said he’s been contacted by probation officials in Seminole and Osceola counties who want to learn more about it.
“Our neighboring counties may want to expand it as well,” he said.
Of course, the program will only work, Deaton said, if the released convict accepts responsibility for their life and avoids drugs and any criminal activity.
“We’ve got to identify people really willing to change,” he said. “It’s part of our re-entry strategy. It works on one person at a time, and one family at a time, and one neighborohood at a time.”
Deaton said it will likely take the rest of this year to build up the partnerships he needs to make this a successful program.
“I was hoping that we would have an Open Table launched by the end of the year, but I think that’s overly optimistic with the holidays and all,” he said. “I’m optimistic that 2012 is the year this program will be rolling.”
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