More Than Advocates: How the Innocence Project’s Social Work Team Supports Exonerees Reclaiming Their Autonomy
The team helps with everything from housing and health care to mental health and emotional support.
03.29.23 By Meghan Nguyen
March is Social Work Month, a time to celebrate social workers and recognize the dedication, compassion, and empathy they impart while serving those in need. In their roles, social workers provide support and guidance to people of all backgrounds, whether it comes to crisis situations, challenges, or life transitions.
A key part of what we do at the Innocence Project is ensuring that exonerees have a smooth transition to freedom and life outside of prison, and our social work team makes that possible by helping exonerees adjust to changes and challenges after years — and even decades — of wrongful incarceration.
Coming home from prison after decades of wrongful incarceration is not easy — the complex trauma that exonerees have endured doesn’t end with release. Exonerees face many challenges when adjusting to life outside prison, including financial stress, difficulty finding housing and employment and social stigma. So our social work team helps exonerees and recently freed clients find housing, employment, and health care, and provides wrap-around support services to our clients from the moment they step into freedom.
Rodney Roberts, an exoneree and the Innocence Project’s first re-entry coach, brings a unique perspective to the social work team, offering a more holistic understanding of the challenges exonerees face. Having spent 18 years incarcerated before he was exonerated and released in 2014, Mr. Roberts has firsthand knowledge of the challenges exonerees may encounter as they return to their families and communities.
“Hiring me and bringing me into the department gave [the social work team] a more internal observation of what it feels like to actually experience and live through the process,” Mr. Roberts said. “I sat in prison 18 years and fought for my freedom, and I know how it feels to be lonely, confused, and afraid to be vulnerable once you get out. I’m able to help our social workers look at our clients in a different, more understanding way.”
Mr. Roberts leads a support group for exonerees over Zoom, helping them to build community and providing them with a space to share their experiences and offer each other support.
For Eman Ghoneim, who joined the team as a full-time role social worker in the fall of 2022 after interning at the Innocence Project for a year, identifying and addressing these challenges are a crucial part of the job.
“Wrongful conviction is a traumatic experience that can impact so many things, especially a client’s mental health and well-being, and especially coming from an environment where, for years, they were constantly being told that they were guilty of something they didn’t do,” Ms. Ghoneim said. “So it can be challenging to help clients address those needs and manage their own trauma, especially because clients may feel really stigmatized around the idea of seeking therapy, talking to someone and finding that social support and connection in their own communities.”
- “I sat in prison 18 years and fought for my freedom, and I know how it feels to be lonely, confused, and afraid to be vulnerable once you get out.”
In light of these challenges, taking a trauma-informed and client-centered approach is important for every social worker at the Innocence Project. Kyana Champion, who joined the Innocence Project as a social worker in 2020, said that incorporating an understanding of exonerees’ lived experiences and honoring their self-determination is essential to effectively advocate for their rights and well-being.
“Empathy is so important to the work we do, because even though we might not have shared experiences, we realize that [exonerees] are coming from a space where they’ve experienced complex trauma, where they’re navigating a world that’s completely different from what it was beforehand,” said Ms. Champion. “Just being supportive and empowering, and helping them figure out what it is that they want out of life [now that they are free], is what’s really important. It’s not about what we think is best — it’s more a collaborative process of figuring out what it is that our clients want and how we can work together to make that happen.”
In addition to providing support through our social work team, the Innocence Project also supports recently exonerated people through the Exoneree Fund. The fund is used to help pay for their first year of housing, get them access to comprehensive medical and dental care, and connect them with a therapist. The fund helps to relieve some of the stress and financial burden of starting over as exonerees go through the process of healing and re-establishing their lives and autonomy.
The team also provides assistance with simple things so many of us take for granted — from locating birth certificates and Social Security Numbers to finding family members, securing housing, looking for employment, or connecting to health care that is desperately needed after years of inadequate institutional treatment. And they do it while offering intense emotional support.
“One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job is seeing exonerees meet their goals. For some, the goal might look simple and uncomplicated … such as getting their license, buying their first car, or signing a lease. But just knowing that I’m playing a part in helping them meet these goals, making the life that they want for themselves and reclaiming their autonomy in the world — I think that’s why I do what I do,” said Ms. Champion. “It’s definitely fulfilling, and I would say that those are my proudest moments, just seeing exonerees have the ability to live the lives that they want.”
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