National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Feature Story: Forensic Peer Specialists:  A Workforce for the Future

Contributor: LaVerne D. Miller, Esq.

Since 1994, the Howie the Harp Peer Advocacy Center has trained mental health consumers to work in human services.  The Center’s mission is to increase the recruitment, hiring, retention, and integration of peer staff in the workforce.  In 2001, the Center started the STARR Program, Steps to a Renewed Reality Forensic Peer Specialist Training Program, the nation’s first program to train consumers with histories of incarceration to work in human services.  Most of our graduates work as forensic peer specialists in programs providing services to other consumers with histories of incarceration.  They work in diversion and reentry programs as well as other agencies providing services to this targeted population.

The STARR program consists of four core components: classroom training, supervised internship, placement and post placement supports and continuing education.  The classroom training lasts for approximately 6 months and prepares trainees for entry level positions in human services.  Training modules include: "Confronting Your Criminal Justice History," "Case Management and Service Coordination," "Understanding the Criminal Justice System," "Peer Counseling" and "Conflict Resolution and Mediation."  Classes are taught by trainers who are not only subject matter experts but who are also committed to successfully integrating peer staff in the workplace, and share our values of resiliency and recovery.  Trainees also receive job readiness training to ensure that they are fully prepared for the demands of the workplace.

We are especially proud of the dynamic learning environment that we have created.  We use the adult based learning strategies used by community colleges to teach non-traditional students.  Trainees are encouraged to use their experiences as a knowledge base and to "do" as opposed to "listen."  Each trainee must successfully complete a three to six month internship in order to graduate from the program.  The Center has successfully developed supervised internships in programs such as mental health court, jail diversion, prison re-entry, supportive housing, case management and assertive community treatment.  Trainees are required to attend weekly support groups throughout the term of the internship.

The Center is committed to placing each graduate in a competitive employment position.  Here, we utilize a job matching strategy, placing graduates in positions that meet their preferences but also meet the needs of the prospective employer.  Graduates do mock interviews and receive other support in preparation for job interviews.  The Center also assists graduates in obtaining dress attire for both interviews and work. Finally, the Center provides ongoing job retention support to graduates based on the individual needs of graduates.  Graduates can attend the weekly Career Club, peer support groups or individual counseling.

One of the Center’s goals is to assist trainees and graduates in establishing careers in human services.  The Center’s Quarterly Continuing Education Series provides in depth training on new or emerging practices.  This part of the program is open to any consumer working in human services and is free.

Despite all of the progress that consumers have achieved in the workforce and workplace over the past 10 years, we still continue to face stigma and discrimination.  The Center provides technical assistance and support to employer/providers to assist them in creating healthy and supportive work environments for all staff.

In closing, we are extremely proud of the accomplishments of the past seven years.  We did not imagine that the STARR Program would have the impact that it continues to have on our graduates, the consumers they provide services to, and the mental health and criminal justice systems.  We continue to advocate for systems change where policies and practices create unreasonable barriers to enjoying the rights and privileges of citizenship for consumers with histories of incarceration.

LaVerne Miller is the Director of the Howie the Harp Peer Advocacy Center. For more information about the Center please call them at 212-865-0775.