Monday, November 7, 2016

Restorative Justice through Financial Counseling

By: Michelle Morillo

Restorative justice is about more than making offenders pay their debts to society. It’s about the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. That means, in part, making sure that those emerging from incarceration have the knowledge and skills to re-integrate back into society in ways that add value to their communities and keep them from falling back into the court system. At Midtown Community Court, financial counselors like me provide restorative justice to fathers who want to play a bigger role in their children’s lives and are determined to do the right thing, but just don’t know how.

I have always had a passion for helping others, which makes my job as a Financial Counselor with Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners a great fit. At Midtown Community Court, I meet with thousands of New Yorkers through the NYC Financial Empowerment Center. I provide free counseling services to educate, empower, and protect their resources, and I help them build assets and secure the most out of their financial resources as they work to gain economic stability. I also work to addresses issues of financial inclusion, homelessness, and reentry support.

Many of the men I counsel are formerly incarcerated fathers in the UPNEXT Program, a workforce development and fatherhood re-engagement service. These men are typically unemployed, estranged from their children, and struggle with other obstacles to reunite their families. Most owe thousands of dollars in child support arrears, sometimes in the tens of thousands, plus restitution fines and other fees from the courts. Because of their criminal histories, debt and unemployment, most have bad credit or no credit at all. Many don’t have bank accounts, either, often because they are afraid their funds will be confiscated to pay their child support arrears. They want to jump back into employment as quickly as possible, but even when they do, they don’t have budgets that work to keep them on track, let alone help them get ahead.

As part of the UPNEXT program, I offer a two-part seminar: “Credit Tricks and Traps” and “Budgeting and Banking.” We talk about banking, budgeting, credit and debt management, and about tax benefits they may not know they are entitled to. For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit can be a huge boost to my clients’ ability to support themselves and their families. Then I meet individually with each father. Together, we look at their credit reports. Sometimes we’re able to dispute some of the bad credit in their histories, or get a court fee waived on the grounds of time served. We figure out a path towards paying down their child support arrears and other debts. We build a budget that is within their means without being unrealistically restrictive. Then I help them find affordable financial services: free or low-cost bank accounts, secured credit, credit building products, and any other resources they’re eligible for.

Our record of success together speaks for itself. In fact, Neighborhood Trust recently increased my time at Midtown allowing me to work with more struggling fathers than ever. In the last six months, I’ve provided 128 individual hour-long financial counseling sessions to 89 people, including 23 non-custodial fathers participating in Midtown’s UPNEXT Program. That’s in addition to teaching 5 workshop series in that same time period!

My main motivation comes from coaching others and watching them succeed. Many of them go on to gain employment, and their work with me gives them a strong foundation to rebuild trust in the financial system and accomplish their financial goals. And they feel more confident to become engaged with their families for the first time in years. That’s the most important outcome for me!

Restorative justice isn’t easy. It’s hard work for the court system, for me, and especially for the fathers I counsel. But if we can reunite even a few of these men with their families and keep them from going back into the prison system, it’s worth every minute!

Michelle Morillo is a Supervisor/Senior Financial Empowerment Counselor with Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners in New York City.  She joined Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners as a Financial Counselor in 2007. Neighborhood Trust is one of the nation’s leading providers of financial empowerment services and products. Their mission is to empower low-income individuals to become productive participants in the U.S. financial system and achieve their financial goals.