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Born in Ghana, Abena Amoah, MSW, moved to the United States with her sister when she was 14 years old. Living in New Jersey, she maintained her international focus, working with the United Nations during college and at a refugee resettlement agency through AmeriCorps.
Once she moved to Cincinnati, Amoah worked a residential counselor for at-risk youth. After completing her master’s degree at the UC School of Social Work in 2009, she started working with another disadvantaged population—individuals in the criminal justice system.
As a social worker in the Covington office of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy (DPA), Amoah works with the defense team in criminal cases to provide alternative sentencing plans for defendants.
In addition to receiving the National Criminal Justice Association’s 2011 Outstanding Criminal Justice Program Award in the Southern region, the DPA’s alternative sentencing program was recently recognized by the Harvard Kennedy School.
How did you begin work at the Department of Public Advocacy? "I actually did my graduate internship here. My concentration at the School of Social Work was administration, so I was looking for an agency that would give me both a micro-level experience as well as a macro-level understanding of how in programs are implemented on a long-term basis.
"When I did my internship, the program was in its end stage as a pilot program. It started as an 18-month pilot project in 2006 based on the Bronx Public Defenders program, which looks at social work interventions within the criminal justice system.
"As social workers, we’re trying to dissect the underlying issues in our client population, which include severe, untreated mental health issues as well as substance abuse. After we do a full psychosocial assessment, we develop an alternative sentencing plan to bring to court—that may be regular, therapeutic treatment, or it may be a long-term treatment center as opposed to incarceration.
"We want to find out what the underlying problem is for our client and how we can find treatment options to prevent future recidivism. Our job is to look at that individual as a human being, to define them beyond the crime that they have committed.”
You’ve worked with refugees and youth—was it an adjustment to work in courts? Did you want to work in the criminal justice system? "I never thought I wanted to, but I never closed my eyes to it. I’ve learned that there’s a common trend in people, regardless of what their circumstances are. They want to survive and they will go into survival mode to do that.
"Individuals in the criminal justice system are just as the same as the some of the kids I used to work with. They have extenuating circumstances, very limited family support, poor education and have always lived in poverty. So when your basic needs are not being met, you’re going to do whatever it takes to meet those basic needs—and if you are in an active addiction, you’re going to do anything to fund that addiction.”
Do you think this is a future model for the criminal justice system? "Yes. I know that with Kentucky, one of the reasons the government wanted to look at alternative sentencing was that the jails were overcrowded. It forced them to come up with a solution.
"But this new wave of heroin addiction is a big issue in the state. If someone is severely addicted to drugs, keeping them incarcerated for six months or a year doesn’t solve their problem—the minute they get out they go right back to the same behavior. So the question is: What can we do to change that behavior so that those individuals don’t keep using? When more people use, it affects the community as a whole.”
Would you recommend a criminal justice internship or career path to social work students? "I actually believe the ideal probation officer should be a social worker—we’re trained to connect individuals to services, to navigate systems and to be a change agent. We have the skills.
"I’ve had a few UC students work with me as interns and it’s an amazing experience. Not only are you learning about the criminal justice system, but you also learn about other social service entities. You have to know where to get food stamps, where homeless services are, who provides mental health services, so that when you’re making recommendations to the court, it’s for a holistic approach. You get a taste of everything and you can decide what you want to do.”