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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Cabinet Secretary Allan McVey of the West Virginia Department of Administration announced last week that the Public Defender Services agency has received a grant from The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: WV Criminal Justice Reform.

The grant, which provides monetary support for the position of a social worker as part of the Social Worker Intervention for Trauma-Informed (SWIFT) Defense of Women project, will run through Sept. 30, 2021. The project is a collaborative and holistic approach to the early assessment of the treatment or other services needed by indigent women defendants facing any offense that allows for attorney representation by any Public Defender Corporation in Kanawha, Boone/Lincoln, Fayette, Raleigh, and Logan counties.

“I am proud of our Public Defender Services staff,” McVey said in a news release. “They recognized a need, took it from conception and put it to paper, and the result was sufficient funding to help us get the SWIFT Defense of Women program off the ground. West Virginia has some of the hardest-working citizens, and I believe that having an alternative to incarceration for first-time female offenders will have a lasting and positive impact on our state.”

“Due to the commitment of the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg initiative on criminal justice reform, our public defenders have an opportunity to serve not only their clients’ legal needs, but also their life needs, such as treatment, counseling, housing, employment, and child care,” PDS Executive Director Dana Eddy said in the release. “Particularly, women come into the criminal process often as the result of trauma in their lives that has not been resolved or even identified. The SWIFT Defense of Women program intends to address this deficiency.”

While the year-long project will focus primarily on first-time offenders, any female defendant with public defender representation may be referred to the program. Referrals can be made by attorneys and public defender staff to the SWIFT Defense project social worker, who will contact the defendant, assess her needs, and make appropriate treatment referrals that address the defendant’s mental health, substance abuse, medical needs, and/or provide vocational support.

The SWIFT Defense Project social worker will be trained in trauma-informed legal practice, gender-responsive assessments, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and other assessments necessary to ensure female defendants’ treatment needs are met. The goal is to help women engage in treatment while meeting court requirements, reducing recidivism and promoting care for clients.

Work performed by the social worker is just one focus of the SWIFT Defense of Women project. All Public Defender Corporation staff in the six counties, including but not limited to office staff, paralegals, and investigators, will be trained by Stephanne Thornton, PDS Criminal Justice Specialist, in trauma-informed legal practice to learn how to identify trauma in defendants; how to respond to that trauma; how to avoid triggering that trauma through their interactions with the defendant; and how to avoid vicarious trauma, which is a work condition that mimics Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The grant is the first project-specific monetary grant award received by the Public Defender Services agency and was the result of concern for rising incarceration rates of West Virginia women, a lack of gender-specific assessments for women, and prevalent circumstances impacting female defendants, including trauma. The purpose of the project is to compile data that shows the impact that early intervention plays in lowering incarceration rates and reducing recidivism, as well as demonstrate the need for sustainable funding to expand this program in the future.