The thing about a crisis is that it usually happens when least expected.
It’s just before 7 p.m. on a Tuesday and Rachel Halleck ’10 is working the phone, trying to find a hospital bed and treatment for a desperately troubled client. Between calls, the director of behavioral services at Volunteers of America Indiana recalled what called her to clinical psychology career. As a UIndy undergrad, Halleck completed an internship at a women’s prison. Many of the inmates were single mothers with extreme levels of trauma in their lives, which led them down a road of poverty, addiction, and criminal behavior.
“They were poor. Marginalized. As felons, they had little hope of finding employment to support themselves and their children when released,” she explains. “Instead of a lock-them-up, out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind mentality, it seemed we should address the root causes of their problems.
“It intrigued me.”
Indiana’s incarceration statistics are staggering. At 11 percent, it has the country’s second-highest percentage of children and teens with a parent who is in jail or prison. Experts say the ranking is largely the result of drug-related crime. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, 62 percent of incarcerated females and 51 percent of incarcerated males in the U.S. have children under the age of 18. In Indiana, 20 percent of black children have an incarcerated parent, twice the rate of white and Hispanic children.
What to do about it
What are the biggest challenges? According to Halleck, poverty, physical and mental health issues, depression, anxiety, PTSD, poor performance in school, and delinquency are at the top of the list. To pursue a meaningful career rooted in research and best practices, Halleck went on to earn a master’s degree in psychology at UIndy. Her experience included an internship with Volunteers of America Indiana.
Now a licensed mental health and addictions counselor, Halleck has worked full-time for VoAIN since 2011. She said about 85 percent of clients are referred by judges, probation officers, case managers, and others in the legal system. Many are unemployed or don’t earn enough for proper daycare, clothing for their kids, rent and utilities, reliable transportation, and health insurance.
Offering skills & treatment
With funding from the prestigious Annie E. Casey Foundation, Volunteers of America developed Look Up & Hope, a program to support families impacted by incarceration. Their work, which crosses generational, racial, religious, gender, and cultural boundaries, is recognized by the foundation as a promising practice for families of color. Currently offered at VoA’s Indiana, Texas, and Dakotas affiliates, Look Up & Hope offers vocational training, employment services, educational programs, life-skills and parenting classes, addiction treatment, family counseling, and caregiver support. Halleck has been involved with the program for three of its five years. The local affiliate has been so successful that Indiana is VoA’s national center of excellence in the field. Halleck and team are standardizing the program, developing a service manual with resources she expects will be complete by the end of the year. Program materials, along with varying levels of VoA staff support, will be available for purchase by churches, social service agencies, and other organizations that want to adopt the model.
Through VoA, Halleck is working to develop and open a new residential treatment center for families that will be referred by the city’s Department of Child Services. The center is unique because mothers may have two children live with them at the center while in treatment. VoAIN will provide children’s programs and activities while mothers are in counseling. Halleck notes the facility will open with 15 adult beds, with the possibility of future expansion. Services will include addictions treatment, parenting classes, budgeting and skills-based training, and other programming. With nearly a decade of professional experience, Halleck has earned a reputation as a leading expert on rehabilitation for incarcerated adults and their children.
Little children, big challenges
In fact, she was selected as one of five national consultants to work with “Sesame Street” on “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.” The program provides free, downloadable resources for educators, parents, and caregivers. Components include age-appropriate videos, storybooks, activity guides, and tip sheets. With programs and facilities in Evansville, Fort Wayne, Gary, Indianapolis, and Terre Haute, VoAIN doesn’t focus solely on children; it also serves veterans, the elderly, the homeless, chronic substance abusers, and the mentally ill. Halleck was instrumental in establishing the 25-bed Richard Lugar Safe Haven for Veterans in Fort Wayne. The facility opened in 2014 with much media attention. Unlike abstinence-based, all-or-nothing facilities, the shelter exists first and foremost to provide stable housing so homeless veterans aren’t sleeping on the street.
“We follow a harm-reduction model, which means clients don’t have to be free from drugs and alcohol to be accepted,” she says. “We provide a shelter where they can keep themselves and their belongings safe. Then, we offer treatment designed to reduce and eliminate addiction.” In recognition of her achievements, this year UIndy named Halleck a distinguished alumna, noting her leadership, research, community service, advocacy, and professional contributions. She credits UIndy faculty for an exceptional educational experience. “They were open and candid about work in the field, especially difficult cases and various types of interventions. Overall, I got a good balance of theory and actual tools to use in practice, which has been priceless. The quality was fantastic.”
Giving hope & help
“I am fortunate to work for an organization that is truly motivated to help those who need help the most,” she says one evening at 8:15 p.m., as she walks into an Indianapolis hospital to help her clients navigate hospital admission procedures. “Its heart is in the right place. And its mission matches my own personal and professional views.”