Peer support specialist draws on own struggles to help at-risk Riverside County youth

610 200 Nadine Ono

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For most of his life, 51-year-old Tawheed Haynes* cycled through criminal justice systems throughout Southern California. But today, he works for the Riverside University Health System – Behavioral Health (formerly known as the Riverside County Department of Mental Health) as a peer support specialist with youth who are at risk of being placed in juvenile detention.

Haynes can relate to the kids with whom he works because he has first-hand knowledge of what they are experiencing. “The reason I work there is because I was a child that was kind of put through the system from 12 all the way until I turned 18. I lived in boys’ homes, group homes, juvenile hall, juvenile facilities. So I have kind of a background in that.” Haynes has also served time in county jails, state prisons, as well as spent time on the streets doing drugs.

Of the 117 Riverside County consumer peer support specialists, Haynes is one of 11 who self-identify as having a history of serving time in jail or prison. That experience gives Haynes and peers like him a connection to the people they serve.

“One of the key tenets of peer support is ‘mutuality,’” said Shannon McCleerey-Hooper, program manager of Consumer Affairs for Riverside County University Health System-Behavioral Health. “Mutuality is where we connect with somebody on the heart level. When we engage with a person that looks like us and talks like us, understands our code, if you will, we connect instantly.”

Haynes works with a team which includes a clinical therapist, a parent partner and a behavioral health specialist who works with the child and their family.

“We work as the youth’s advocate. And so what I do, I kind of hold hope, is share my experience,” said Haynes, explaining his role. “I don’t judge. I increase awareness about situations. So if they’re using drugs and ditching school, I’ll literally go out of my way and meet them where they’re at.”

He added, “Sometimes there might be some bumping of heads on both ends and it’s like, ‘Hold on a minute.' Because I work with these people, I’m able to explain to the client, ‘Hey look, these are good people, they’re not trying to screw you over.’”

Besides being a peer support specialist, Haynes has also authored two books on his experiences, “The Twelve Paths of Recovery: Finding Peace and Balance Within Yourself” and “The Echoes of the Shadows of Our Pasts.”

Becoming a peer support specialist also means becoming a Riverside County employee, which is not easy with a criminal record. “It’s a daunting task for somebody who wants to be of service in this way,” said McCleerey-Hooper. “You need to be working with somebody on your own recovery, work with people who support you in getting your records expunged, or making sure that every box has been checked off.”

McCleerey-Hooper added there is also cross-system cooperation to make sure applicants are successful. “The other part is that, as a system, we have to be talking to each other. Our behavioral health side spoke to our probation side and said, ‘We’re going to use peers, but we’re going to need to know that you guys need to feel OK about approving somebody through background.’”

And for many of the peer support specialists, this may be the first time they have held a full-time job with a livable income, benefits and union membership. McCleery-Hooper said that the work has added value for many. “It gets folks into a position where it helps support their recovery. It works for some people is a recovery tool. It’s a wellness tool. And part of mental health wellness and substance use wellness is about routine. Coming up with a healthy routine and work is part of that routine.”

The program began in 1993 with family advocates as parent partners. It added consumer peer support specialists in 2006 and in 2011, with the passage of AB109, the county began specific recruitment of peers with lived experience in the criminal justice system. The first AB109 “New Life” peer support specialist was hired in 2012.

The peer support program is a win-win for both the peers and their clients. It’s an effective way to help the clients — whether they are at-risk youth and their families, people recently released from jail, or those dealing with mental illness and/or substance use issues — to get the treatment they need to stay on the right path and out of jail.

The program is an example of how the county has developed interventions to improve mental health outcomes and reduce jail time for the mentally ill, as well as worked collaboratively to better address substance use and abuse, which are two of the recommendations put forward in the CA Fwd J-SCI Riverside County jail study.

“If you would have told me like, six years ago I’d be where I’m today, I’d be like ‘You bumped your head,’” said Haynes. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t think that they would want someone like me, but it just happened the way it happened and here I am.”

*Tawheed Haynes is the pen name of individual who requested the identification. 


Nadine Ono

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