L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs

L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs



Wilder School to colaborate in VCU-lead project to support high-risk youth transitioning out of incarceration

Sarah Jane Brubaker
Sarah Jane Brubaker

by Brian McNeil

A multidisciplinary team of researchers, including Wilder School Professor Sarah Jane Brubaker, is launching a project to provide supported employment, trauma counseling, peer support and case management for youth and young adults with behavioral health disorders who are transitioning out of a Richmond-area juvenile correctional facility. 

Project Belong — or “Building Educational and empLoyment Opportunities through trauma-informed re-eNtry planninG” — will provide in-facility and community-based services to 75 high-risk young adults with behavioral health disorders who are transitioning from the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. The services will supplement Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center’s current programs, and will continue for 12 months post-release.

The project’s overall objective is to provide a high-fidelity employment intervention that prepares youth and young adults psychologically, educationally and vocationally to enter into and maintain employment, said co-lead principal investigator Courtney Holmes, Ph.D., an associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling in the VCU College of Health Professions and a certified clinical trauma professional.

“Recidivism rates for youth and young adults, especially those with behavioral health disorders, released from juvenile correctional facilities remain unacceptably high,” Holmes said. “Justice-involved youth have histories of trauma and are at risk of high school dropout, substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment and continued criminal justice involvement as adults.”

Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center residents are overwhelmingly considered high-risk, as post-traumatic stress disorder, childhood maltreatment and childhood adversity are significantly more likely among justice-involved juvenile populations than the general population. Project Belong will address the residents’ employment and educational needs through an evidence-based employment intervention enhanced with peer support, trauma counseling and case management services, embedded in a framework of trauma- and gender-informed care, motivational interviewing and emotional freedom techniques.

“We believe that this intervention will be successful at supporting youth in successfully transitioning out of incarceration with better mental health and coping skills, access to resources and support outside of the facility, job skills and employment opportunities,” said co-project lead Gary Cuddeback, Ph.D., interim dean, associate dean for research and professor in the VCU School of Social Work. “Expanding the intervention to support youth to enter the workforce equipped with self-awareness, job skills and mental health skills is the goal.”

Project Belong is supported by a recent $900,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to the VCU Institute for Women’s Health, which is the collaborating institute at VCU. The study is led by Holmes and Cuddeback. Molly Hyer, Ph.D., director of research development and innovation at the Institute for Women’s Health, and Sarah Jane Brubaker, Ph.D., professor and assistant chair of criminal justice programs in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, serve as co-investigators on the grant.

The Institute for Women’s Health’s role in the project will focus on the different experiences young men and young women have as they move through the justice system and upon release. “Project Belong will allow us to craft sex-specific support and treatment plans for the youth as they re-enter their communities,” Hyer said.

The project is in partnership with the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, with Karen Akom, Ed.D., also serving as a co-investigator on the grant. The grant was additionally supported by the Virginia Office of the Attorney General. 

Project Belong is slated to begin delivering the intervention in the next six months and will run through 2026.

“We are very excited to get started and are looking forward to partnering with BAJCC to support youth transitioning out of Bon Air,” Holmes said.

This story originally appeared on VCU News