After the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department pulled resources from KC NoVA, client advocates had to focus more on reaching out to individuals in jail or on parole. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

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If you’re on parole in Jackson County, you might run into Heidi Jones. She isn’t there to make sure you’re following the terms of your release — she wants to help you make the most of your life post incarceration.

Jones is a client advocate in Kansas City. The role is simultaneously very specific and incredibly broad; while she’s explicitly looking to help people who are likely to either shoot someone or be shot at, the methods of assistance and the support she provides are unique to each individual. 

She’s part of a four-person team at KC No Violence Alliance, a collaborative violence-deterrence program that abruptly vanished from public view several years ago after Kansas City Police Department Chief Rick Smith pulled his support.

Known as KC NoVA, the collaboration among the police, the prosecutor’s office and social service groups focused on individuals thought to be at risk of committing violent crimes or becoming victims. 

Police no longer use their investigative resources to participate in the deterrence effort. But the social service component never went away — despite beliefs to the contrary.

“I had clients who would call me from prison and say, ‘Heidi, I heard NoVA is dead, what does that mean?’” Jones said. “We wondered the same thing. My thought is, as long as they’re still paying me, I’m gonna put down my head and continue to work.”

KC client advocates shift outreach strategies

The way advocates reach people has changed since KCPD publicly retracted its support. In 2013 and 2014, police officers worked shoulder to shoulder with advocates, said Michael Mansur, director of communications for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office. Mansur has been involved with KC NoVA since its inception, and he said information police shared was essential to finding groups of people most often involved in violence.

When it was going strong, KC NoVA featured community call-ins, where invitees not only learned they were on the Police Department’s radar, they also received offers from client advocates to help them choose a different path through job training. The call-ins are a thing of the past. Instead, advocates are trying to reach people individually.

Finding someone is half the battle. Often the address on file is incorrect, or a phone number has been disconnected. When approaching a home for the first time, advocates go in groups of two. Not everyone is happy to hear that they’ve been referred to the program.

“Guys slam the door in our face, if they open the door to us at all,” said Darren Faulkner, who leads the client advocacy program. “It’s hard, because we’re essentially making cold calls to individuals living in desperate situations, trying to make it in poverty, and then these strange people are knocking at their door saying something crazy. It’s hard work, and it doesn’t always yield us anything.” 

Jones has taken to showing up at parole meetings to introduce herself to people who may benefit from social services. Parole officers get to know the advocates and can vouch for them, which increases the chance they’ll be taken seriously.

Building a network around violence reduction

Before advocates can connect people with jobs or housing, clients have to have their paperwork in order. Faulkner said the program has a budget for “client deliverables,” which helps pay for things like state IDs, birth certificates and Social Security cards. 

“We help them with all of that, it’s a holding-hand process, because these are guys that have not cared to navigate the system,” he said. “There are so many obstacles and barriers within the system that sometimes they would prefer to continue doing what they’re doing. And we just help them walk through that system.”

Advocates juggle multiple clients at one time, and those relationships can remain in place for years. Even if someone in the program reoffends, their client advocate will continue to offer support while they’re incarcerated. 

As some clients get clean and start working jobs, they need less immediate help, but advocates keep the lines of communication open. Once basic needs like housing and food are met, new issues can begin to emerge. Advocates may help a client enter therapy, get their first credit card or go to the dentist. 

“I had a mentor tell me, ‘We have to be so careful not to crack these eggs until we know we can catch them,’” Jones said.

Long-term clients can also put advocates in touch with family members or friends who need help. They may have a younger sibling who is trying to get out of a violent life but isn’t sure how. Word travels about the advocates, and Jones said she’s introduced herself to someone before only to have them say that they’ve heard about her from their connections already.

Client advocate program is underfunded, overburdened

The client advocacy team has only four members, including Faulker and Jones. Resources are stretched thin each time they go to visit a new referral. Faulkner said more money dedicated toward the program, and hiring more advocates, could go a long way to further the impact of the program. 

“We don’t have the funding to see the kinds of results I’d like to see and I believe we would see. If we have 10 client advocates? Oh my goodness,” he said. Although data is not available, Faulkner said he thinks the program as it stands could be preventing 20 or more homicides a year, and that number could double with more advocates.

“I can’t shout from the rooftops loud enough about the added value social services bring to this fight in violence reduction,” he said.

Previously, KC NoVA worked with a fiscal agent, which accepted and was responsible for grant funding on its behalf. That relationship has since ended, however, and the program does not have nonprofit status, which can scare away traditional philanthropic donors. 

“I can’t shout from the rooftops loud enough about the added value social services bring to this fight in violence reduction.”

Darren FAULKNER

It has had to get creative in order to continue paying KC client advocates for their work. A plan to move the client advocates into the Kansas City Health Department is in the works as part of a larger project to reinvent KC NoVA and its mission. 

Client advocates are expected to receive some Community Backed Anti-Crime Tax funds this year, donated by KCPD and the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, but it’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem. 

“There’s a huge hole in any system of violence reduction if there isn’t a social services component,” Faulkner said. “You can’t arrest your way out of it.”

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.