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Out of Prison, But Not Alone: Women Get Help at Catholic Halfway House

San Francisco’s Catherine Center gives female parolees an opportunity to lay the foundation for a fulfilling future.


| Posted 1/11/13 at 3:48 PM


SAN FRANCISCO — January is the time to make good on New Year’s resolutions, but that fresh start can prove elusive when you’re a job seeker with a felony on your record.

Monique, 28, is a personable young woman who says she plans “to finish college and find work helping troubled teens.” The problem is that, 10 months ago, she was doing time for a drug charge, and she’s still worried about staying out of trouble.

The predicament of finding a job following incarceration for a felony is all too familiar for Monique: Her parents were both drug addicts, and she witnessed their struggle to get clean, earn the right to get their kids back and begin again.

But she isn’t facing a forbidding future on her own. She can count on support from her fellow residents at Catherine Center, a Catholic halfway house for parolees, and a team of expert advisors who are helping her build new relationships and patterns of behavior that foster self-respect and independence.

Based in South San Francisco, the Catherine Center was established in 2003, after Sister of Mercy Marguerite Buchanan  and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of San Mateo County determined that parolee rehabilitation programs were failing to achieve their mission.

The Sisters of Mercy and a generous donor offered money for purchasing and upgrading a three-bedroom apartment to provide a gracious home. The Society of  St. Vincent de Paul took responsibility for running the residential program, and organizers decided to decline any government support. The program has received grants from the Western Association of the Order of Malta and other Church groups.

“The Society of St. Vincent de Paul made a decision not to go after government funding because we wanted the flexibility to be able to serve whoever crossed our path, rather than be dictated by the eligibility criteria and other regulations often attached to government funding,” explained Lorraine Moriarty, the executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of San Mateo County, located in the San Francisco Archdiocese.

That freed up administrators to provide a faith-filled, flexible program intensely focused on rebuilding lives damaged by drug addiction, prostitution and destructive family relationships.

“God is love; that has been the overriding mission since Catherine Center’s inception,” said Moriarty. “We are the heart and the hands and feet of the Lord for folks who may never have known God as love. Irrespective of their choices in life, God’s mercy and compassion is there for them.”


How It Works

Catherine Center’s annual budget totals $500,000, providing addiction treatment, room and board, health care, transportation to appointments and case management to help residents work through family issues.

Two daily prayer sessions, meditation, spiritual guidance and an annual retreat offer a strong framework for parolees as they work to stay clean, complete restitution and reach out to estranged children and other alienated family members. Residents who come from other faiths are encouraged to pursue their own religious traditions.

“Most haven’t had much exposure to religion, but within their being they have a great hunger for God. When we say we want to nurture their dignity as the image and likeness of God, they embrace that,” said Moriarty.

Many residents are caught in a generational pattern of soul-destroying behavior fueled by substance abuse. Most have endured exploitive relationships since childhood and can react to unconditional kindness with suspicion.

“Approximately 95% of our residents have been horribly victimized as little girls. They have been emotionally abused, physically abused and sexually abused,” said Suzi Desmond, the psychotherapist who works with Catherine Center residents.

“They then turn to alcohol and drugs to conceal the pain. An addiction soon follows, as does impaired judgment, criminal behavior and ultimately incarceration."

“The key to transformation is unearthing the trauma and processing the emotions, which have been suppressed for many years, often decades. It is paramount that our residents feel safe, protected and loved. She is only then able to process the pain and suffering,” said Desmond.


Monique’s Story

Generally, the residents arrive at Catherine Center directly from prison, where they have been identified as strong candidates for Catherine Center.

Monique had been enrolled in a large rehabilitation program for parolees, but she felt “invisible,” and it didn’t “work.” Catherine Center brought her back into contact with her childhood Catholic faith, and she learned to ask for God’s forgiveness for past actions.

“I wanted to have a spiritual connection again, but, at first, it was strange to get so much love. I wasn’t used to that. I was empty. I had no morals or values. I felt ugly. I didn’t even feel worthy of the love I received, and, at times, I didn’t want to be there,” Monique recalled during an interview with the Register.

But she stayed put, gaining strength over time. One day, she even telephoned her parents.

“I called, and they were so happy and relieved. They thought I was dead and had called the morgue.”

Monique is one of the few lucky parolees to find a safe haven after incarceration. The transition from prison to mainstream life is fraught with danger. Former pimps and old friends from the street tempt many women to return to the familiar pattern of using and prostitution.

“The first 24 to 48  hours are the most critical time for these women: Will they find a new way or return to the old way?” noted Roger Hagman, a Society of St. Vincent de Paul volunteer who was an early supporter of Catherine Center and regularly brings visitors to join the residents' nightly group dinners.

The recidivism rate is notoriously high for former drug addicts. The U.S. Department of Justice website cites a number of studies that confirm the difficulty of staying off drugs. “Among nearly 300,000 prisoners released in 15 states in 1994, 67.5% were rearrested within three years,” read the conclusion of one study referenced by the DOJ.


Changing the Odds

Catherine Center’s halfway house is designed to change the odds by providing a supportive routine, with busy days that initially focus on a 12-step treatment program, restitution and structured prayer time. Later on, in the one-to-two-year program, career mentoring and job placement are also included.

But staying clean remains a high-wire act for residents, and not everyone makes it past the first couple of weeks or months.

“The hardest moment is when I have to tell someone, ‘The choices you are making means that you won’t be able to be here,’” said Moriarty.

Staff and volunteers remain in close touch with women who have successfully completed the program.

“Once they are alumni, they can continue to access this support, and then the Society of St. Vincent de Paul can help them when they transition into their new apartment and pursue job training,” said Moriarty.

Catherine Center doesn’t consider program participants as “graduates” until they have successfully navigated an independent life for about a year.

Moriarty and her team have celebrated with residents when they reach important milestones and mourned the stumbles that lead others to leave the program. Everyone, they say, is unique and deeply loved.

“They trust me with their stories, and tell me, ‘I am here because I need help.’ Every story is beautiful. I don’t experience ‘burnout,’” said Moriarty, “but, rather, a sense of awe and wonder when they share their story with me.”


Staying on Track

Kristina Lopez, the case manager for Catherine Center, is among the many program graduates to stay on track years after her graduation.

“The unconditional love offered at Catherine Center is our most powerful message. The volunteers are so kind: They know they are coming to a house of criminals — people who have been in jail in the past, and they accept us.”

Lopez still remembers the precise moment, eight months into the program, “when I absolutely knew with every part of my being that I did not want to go back to my past life.”

“Personally, mentally and physically I shifted from being immature to getting serious,” Lopez explained. “The education and spiritual support were essential. It gave me faith and hope — it still gives me comfort when I am scared.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.