An Advocate for the Marginalized

For troubled veterans and others, Kelli Canada offers a new approach.

By Anita Neal Harrison

As an undergraduate, Kelli Canada, a young woman who grew up in the exceptionally safe, best-place-to-live-in Indianapolis suburb of Fishers, accepted an internship that landed her in one of the poorest areas of Philadelphia. Her job involved work with a community-based mental health program. It was both tough and transformative.

“Some of the stories I heard there as a 20-year-old changed my life forever,” Canada says. “I remember one woman who was one of six kids. Her brothers spent a lifetime sexually abusing her. She talked to me about it, and we knit together. I knew, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’”

One master’s degree, ten years in clinical social work and a doctorate later, Canada is now an assistant professor of social work at MU, where her research concentrates on vulnerable populations who find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system.

People with mental illnesses remain a particular concern, she says, but recently her interest has expanded to include seniors and veterans. Earlier this year, for example, she and David Albright, also an assistant professor of social work at MU, received national attention for their examination of current thinking related to veterans with legal trouble, and how social workers might help them.

“I personally have been thrilled that people are excited about this work and what we can do for veterans,” Canada says about the Journal of Forensic Social Work paper. “Barriers that prevent help-seeking, such as stigmas and lack of access to resources, may contribute to veterans being arrested. Social workers have the ability to recreate the narrative surrounding mental health and veterans in the criminal justice system and help to ensure that veterans get the assistance they need.”

Canada and Albright began work on their study after offering to evaluate Boone County’s new Veterans Treatment Court, an alternative venue that follows the model of drug and mental-health courts. Like these, veterans treatment courts are designed to give offenders facing jail or prison time the chance to complete a supervised treatment program instead. The model is still relatively new, the first one having begun less than a decade ago. Because of this, Canada says, there’s not much data guiding them.

“We know a lot more about why people with mental illness come into the criminal justice system and what they need to prevent recidivism,” she says. “But when we look at veterans — [those] who have substance abuse problems, who have mental health problems, and who have disabilities in general — we just don’t know as much about what we need to do to keep them out of the criminal justice system.”

To begin filling the research hole, Canada, Albright, and their fellow MU associate professor of social work, Clark Peters, have designed a study to explore why so many veterans find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

For the project’s initial phase, the MU team interviewed 28 Boone County veterans who were either on probation or parole. The researchers asked the veterans about their transgressions — not just the reasons for their arrests, but also the circumstances surrounding their run-ins with the law. Using those responses, the researchers will complete a “thematic analysis” that will help them develop a standardized measure for the project’s next phase.

This second part of the study involves gathering additional survey information, this time not just from veterans in the criminal justice system, but also from non-veterans who have entered the system and veterans who have avoided legal trouble. The researchers’goal, Canada says, is to use the data they collect to develop and evaluate future interventions.

Canada didn’t start off interested in issues related to cops and courts, but they grew on her as she saw how often legal troubles were affecting her clients. “I was working with people with severe and persistent mental illnesses, and I saw them continuously going in and out of the criminal justice system,” she says.

Frustrated by her inability to do much to help, Canada felt compelled to leave her job as a social worker — one she still loved — to work for what she describes as “creating change on a larger scale.”

Although those one-on-one moments that drew her to social work as a college student are now rare, she finds motivation in knowing she’s still helping people. “I will never forget what one of my clients told me on my last day of my full-time job as a social worker,” Canada says. “He told me that as hard as it was to say goodbye, it was a joy because he knew that I would be able to make a difference not only in his future, but also for other people with mental illnesses who are treated unfairly.

“Every time I start feeling disconnected from work, I think about him and what he said that day, and it reminds me that our work can and does make a difference, particularly for those vulnerable populations of people who do not have a voice.”

Kelli Canada

Difference Maker For Veterans
Kelli Canada, an assistant professor of social work, aims to keep former service members out of the criminal justice system. Photo by Nicolas Benner.

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