Diane Wade House

Multnomah County to ‘close out,’ revamp transitional home for Black women leaving prison after evaluator’s critical report

From The Oregonian – February 1, 2021

Multnomah County plans to completely revamp its first transitional residential program for Black women leaving prison after a critical report described a climate of “fear and mistrust,” poor communication and the “tokenization of Black people.”

The independent evaluation of operations at the Diane Wade House proved a brutal blow to a program that the county rolled out in April 2019 with much fanfare as a one-of-a-kind, desperately needed service.

Meagan Call-Cummings, an assistant professor at Virginia’s George Mason University, interviewed 42 people between August and October and recommended that no new women be referred to the house until its problems are addressed.

Only two women are living in the 38-bed Gresham property now.

The county is likely to suspend future referrals and close out the current facility, as it works to seek a new provider and new location that will cater to fewer women, said Erika Preuitt, director of the county’s Department of Community Justice.

“It is the overall finding of this evaluation that if Multnomah County leaders and policymakers, as well as senior leaders within DCJ (Department of Community Justice), do not begin this racial reckoning immediately and in profoundly real and deeply uncomfortable ways, the Diane Wade House will not be successful, its lofty goals will not be reached, and Black women involved in the justice system will once again be left to fend for themselves amidst structures and systems that are set up for them to fail,” Call-Cummings wrote.

The county commissioned the professor to conduct the evaluation. She submitted her report, obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive, to representatives of the county’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council in November, but the council hasn’t made it public.

While some women told Call-Cummings the Diane Wade House provided a safe space for them to feel empowered as they work to return to the community, others said it seemed as if senior managers were trying “to save face” when the program wasn’t successful. Some probation officers said they felt pressured to refer women to the house, though they didn’t believe it would be a good fit, particularly those with mental illness.

Preuitt said the county plans to “ramp down” the program and put out a request for proposals this spring for another provider to run a reimagined Diane Wade House that operates out of a home setting instead.

“The county and DCJ are absolutely committed to providing this resource in our community,” she said.

The county will work with an already-established community advisory board to address concerns highlighted in the report and explore its recommendations, Preuitt said. Antoinette Edwards, a leader in the city’s Black community, is now working for the county as a facilitator of the community board.

“In the next phase of the Diane Wade House, we want it to be strongly grounded in the community,” Preuitt said.

An outside evaluator identified as problems with the Diane Wade House its dormitory-style housing that resembles institutional living and its Gresham location far from family and social service supports for many of the residents.

The program is for Black women on probation or coming out of prison and run by women who have gone through the criminal justice system themselves. Since it opened, 89 women were referred to the home. Residents were to be able to stay at the house for up to six months, and be connected to mental health resources, drug and alcohol treatment, future housing and classes on parenting, job and life skills. While it was to be geared toward Black women, all women were eligible for referral to stay there.

It’s named after a county parole and probation officer who worked from May 1999 until October 2010 and worked to uplift Black women in the criminal justice system. She died in 2010 from a seizure.

The report’s findings back up many of the allegations raised by former program manager, O’Nesha Cochran, who was fired just three weeks after the Diane Wade House opened in 2019.

Cochran, along with former employees Sonja Freeman and Shalontelle White-Preston, are suing Bridges to Change, the nonprofit managing the house. Freeman and White-Preston resigned two months after Cochran’s termination. They’re seeking $2 million in damages, alleging their former employer subjected them to a racially hostile work environment, “tokenized them’’ and exploited their labor.

The county contracted with Bridges to Change to run the home through a $2 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The grant ran through last September and the county took over funding the program, according to county officials. The 2021 budget for the Diane Wade House is $693,137, according to Jessica Morkert-Shibley, a county spokeswoman.

The county’s contract with Bridges to Change ends June 30, Preuitt said.

Multnomah County officials had applauded Cochran’s leadership shortly before she was fired. Cochran told The Oregonian/OregonLive then that she believed Bridges to Change retaliated against her for her outspokenness in pressing for promised Afrocentric membership and support programs for residents.

Monta Knudson, director of Bridges to Change, said his nonprofit, which he described as a “white-dominant organization,” won’t seek to run the program after June. He said he believes that the “Diane Wade House 2.0” should be managed by a nonprofit run by leaders from the Black community.

“We want this to be successful, and we believe that’s where this program belongs,” he said.

Knudson, though, defended the firing of Cochran, providing a report from the nonprofit’s labor lawyer attributing her termination to problems with her performance. The report referenced her “aggressive communication,” and a direction for her to refrain “from being the company’s conscience surrounding racial issues.”

While Call-Cummings praised the creation last summer of the community advisory board for the house and its operations, she identified significant challenges to the program’s success.

Among the problems are its dormitory-style housing that resembles institutional living, its Gresham location far from family and social service supports for many of the residents and no shared understanding among residents, staff and managers around what an Afrocentric, culturally specific transitional house should be.

The Diane Wade House opens in Gresham

The nonprofit Bridges to Change will maintain the property when Multnomah County closes the program at the Gresham location and finds a new home-based location, officials said.

Call-Cummings also cited insufficient training for staff to support residents, particularly regarding mental illness, mistrust between staff at the house and probation officers and a lack of communication and transparency within the county Community Justice Department and Bridges to Change and with community members.

“Complicating all of this is a finding that the historical context of Multnomah County and the treatment of African American people here is still playing out,” Call-Cummings wrote in her report. “Ultimately, many feel that this context has meant that optics and politics have been more important to policy makers and leaders than the success of residents and the House.”

There’s “a need for a reckoning around the deep scars of racism that are woven through the fabric of Multnomah County,” Call-Cummings wrote.

Communication problems and lack of collaboration have “rendered the daily work of this program virtually impossible and totally unproductive,” the report says.

One of the women quoted in the report said it felt as if programs for the house were “whitewashed,” in that “you had to go through hell and high water to get culturally-responsive programming approved. And I understand contracting and, you know, the whole process, but there was a whole other layer to it that felt very micromanaged in a way that did not benefit Black women or the program.”

Preuitt acknowledged the legitimate concerns. She said the county moved too fast to open the house without ensuring proper support for staff or letting the voices of women who have been in the criminal justice system “lead the process.”

“I would not say I am surprised, or that I am shocked,” she said.

“We have traveled a journey with this house. We know there’s issues we have had to face in the county. We have to hear voices and incorporate changes appropriately as it relates to their feedback.”

Cochran said she believes this outcome could have been avoided. “While I feel this report confirms our unheard concerns, mostly I feel sadness that this could have been prevented,” she said.

Her lawyer Kim Sordyl said she’s gratified that a community advisory board will provide “much needed oversight” of the program and looks forward to “seeing a positive impact on the lives of the women it serves.”