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Washtenaw United: 'SURE Moms' Building New Futures For Struggling Washtenaw County Mothers

Florence Roberson

Many families face some sort of crisis, especially when it involves the criminal justice system. Finding support can be difficult, which is why Florence Roberson formed "Sisters United Resilient and Empowered," or SURE Moms. She joined WEMU's David Fair to discuss the work her group is doing to build the community and alter the life trajectories for local women and their children. 

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area.  And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services.  It is a community voice.  It is 'Washtenaw United.'




Florence Roberson is the founder and creator of the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office SURE Moms Program. SURE Moms began in 2015 as an out-growth of a weekly Bible study class run for incarcerated women within the Washtenaw County Jail. Prior to starting SURE Moms, Florence was a Hospice Chaplain. In both her personal life and professional career, Florence has a passion to advocate and support women and their children who have experienced trauma. 




Convened by the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, S.U.R.E MOMS WSCO: Sisters United Resilient and Empowered (SURE) is a prime example of a community empowerment and mobilizing group. Given their focus on empowering mothers whose children are involved with the juvenile justice system, and advocating for needed changes to this system, a SURE Mom, Ms. Kim Warren, was a featured panelist at UWWC’s 2020 Equity Challenge Summit. Given their proximity to the criminal justice system, SURE MOMs are best positioned to answer the question-- how must this system transform to achieve justice for all?


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU and today we're going to talk a bit about moms I'm David Fair and I'd like to welcome you to another edition of Washtenaw United. Moms need support, and, all too often, social structure of support is lacking. When enduring the crisis of having a child enter the juvenile justice system or helping give voice to the mothers who want to make positive changes within that system, finding support is too frequently lacking. That's where our guest comes in. Florence Roberson is program coordinator for SURE Moms. Florence is the founder and creator of the foundational support program that was convened by the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, and, Florence, thank you so much for the time today.

Florence Roberson: Thank you.

David Fair: SURE. This is an acronym that stands for Sisters United, Resilient and Empowered. What does that mean to you?

Florence Roberson: Well, I'll tell you a little bit about why we have that name. Our group came together because, like you said, mothers needed support. And once we had a group of mothers together, I asked the mothers, "We need a name for this group and I'm going to step out of the room and I want you to name it." But I wanted them to start feeling the ownership of it. And when I came back, they said, we're sisters. All of us are here together. We're all in the situation that we thought, at one point, was something we would never be able to control. And then they said, "We're united, because we're going to fight this together and support each other and be with each other." And then they said, "If we're resilient, we're going to come through with this, and through all of this, we're going to come out of this empowered."

David Fair: There was a point that you were leading Bible study classes at the Washtenaw County Jail. How much of what you learned there in your experience there helped shape what this program is?

Florence Roberson: Everything. Because being in the jail for a few years, one of the things I noticed was the mothers would go in and they would come out, go in, and come out and, I mean, they would stay there. And when they left out, they would say, "OK, I'm not coming back." And then a few months later, or sometimes a few weeks later, they would come back. And one of the things that concerned me was if you're mothers, you have to have children at home. So how is this affecting your children? And so, I sat down and I started talking with them individually, asking them, "How does this affect your home life?" And then the mothers begin to start talking to me about what it was like being a mother inside the jail and outside of the jail and telling me about the struggles that they had in a lot of their children because the moms are in and out of the jail. Their children were also in the juvenile justice system. And one of the things they kept saying to me all the time was that I just don't have the support I need. So they said to me, "My children are struggling, I'm struggling. Everything around me is struggling." I said, "Tell me what you're lacking." And they said, "Support.”

David Fair: What form does that support take? Because, very often, if someone is incarcerated or has been incarcerated, they feel as though their voice has been marginalized, and it's hard to get someone to listen. So does SURE Moms use its both individual and collective voice to address those concerns with people who can make a difference?

Florence Roberson: Yes, we do. I meet with the mothers individually, probably three or four times before they enter a group. And then we address issues like grief and loss and trauma. We address negative, self-taught parenting skills. I do that in the beginning. But then they come together in a group, and then we talk about it together. And each mother will give their experience on what they've been through or how they overcame areas that they needed to improve on. So what we do is, I think as a group is, being able to come and sit at a table and hear other mothers stories. I think it just really helps support the moms because a lot of times they feel like I'm the only one, because a lot of times sitting at a table, when you first come to that table, you are just afraid because there are so many different things in your life that you're going through--your own traumas. And so, to hear that there's another mother that probably has a story similar to yours, and now you have the opportunity to hear her story of being an overcomer, it really helps the other moms.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. And today, we're talking with the program coordinator and founder of the SURE Moms Program in Washtenaw County, Florence Roberson. And you've pointed it out that a lot of why people end up where they are is through personal or family trauma, and then that cycles through generations. Creating those solid foundations for present day and future success can be very difficult, particularly when you don't trust in the system. So, how is it that you actually go about taking what you've learned from these individuals and from the group to help people maintain and build their family units--blood family and community family--that break some of the cycles?

Florence Roberson: Not only do we have mothers that sit at the table with us, some of the what they would call their enemies sit at the table with us. We have someone from the sheriff's department. We have a deputy.

David Fair: And there's a mistrust there that probably is hard to overcome. 

Florence Roberson: Yes, it is. And then in the beginning. But when that deputy comes in and they find out this deputy is there to hear their story. I'll give you a story about it. One of them was the deputy that most of the mothers totally didn't trust at all. So they didn't want her to come. And one of the mothers said, "Why are you always after my child? It seems like you're always after my family. Every time something happens in my family, you're there." This mother was just really upset with this deputy. And so, the deputy sat there and she said to her, "You didn't know this, but your son took his last breath in my arms. And I promised myself that I would never let another one of your children die. I'm out here. I'm trying to make sure that I'm watching your children and not only your children, but all the children here. And Washtenaw County made such a difference." Because we have law enforcement at the table, because we have a social worker at the table, the moms get to hear their story because our moms have stories of trauma, but so does law enforcement. So does our schoolteachers, because everybody's involved in this. But when you can come and sit at a table and hear everybody's story and then we talk and find out how do we help each other. So these moms now get a chance to see law enforcement isn't always the enemy. Law enforcement can also help. So when there's a problem in a community and our mothers get a call from me stating that I just got a call from maybe someone saying your son is out doing something, I can call law enforcement and say this is what's going on, or law enforcement can call me and say "We've seen this or we've seen that, and how do we work together with this?" Because a lot of times when our moms meet a police officer, right after something has happened with their children, the encounter is not always a peaceful encounter. So now, we're teaching our moms that when something happens, how to approach even a situation when your child is involved with law enforcement, and it has been working out wonderfully. And right now, I mean, we have our mothers have such a respect for law enforcement, but also our law enforcement now has respect for our moms.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU Washtenaw United. We're talking about the SURE Moms program in Washtenaw County with Florence Roberson. And, you know, you just touched on it. It's about humanity, whether in media or dinner tables, anywhere across the country, there's a tendency to talk about people in jail and in the judicial system or even in law enforcement as part of policy issues or some sort of societal deficiency. But unless it's part of a personal or family experience, it's infrequently discussed as that human issue, the individual issue, and the family issue. In your estimation, based on what you've learned over the last six years, do you see a path forward to which we can overcome?

Florence Roberson: Yes, I do. I've watched the moms that have come through the doors of SURE. Our first meeting, we had a mom come in, and she was sitting at the table. Everybody was just talking, telling her story. And I kept feeling the sensation about her. I'm not sure what you would call it. And I looked at her and I said, "Are you thinking about suicide?" And she said to me, "You know what? I'm planning on when I leave here, I'm going to kill myself and maybe my kids." And I said to her, "You know what? I don't want you to do that." I said, "If you just give me a chance to just be with you, support you, please don't do anything like that. That was six years ago. This mother is still with me now. This mother goes with me if we have to speak to other groups. This mother supports other mothers. This mother, I can call and say I need you to talk to this mother because I know this mother right now is contemplating suicide. So do I see a change or do I see that we're making a difference? I really do. And once they are able to address their trauma, once they are able to address what has happened in their lives, you see them out now helping other moms. And when you can look out now, six years later, and see that happening, yes, I see it as a success. And I know that we're going to improve our community

David Fair: As we wind our time together down today, Florence, I do want to ask. Obviously, if there is a community that has been created of strong foundational support within the group to make the systemic and community and societal changes needed, how is it the community can come in and be a part of the solution that you're trying to create?

Florence Roberson: There are a lot of juveniles right now that are in our community, and they are creating a ruckus. So right now, what I'm looking for are activities or events or mentors for young boys. One of the things I asked some of the moms, they said, "What is the interest that your kids have?" A lot of them have interests in they love cars. How do I find mechanics or people that would be willing to take a young boy and let him work on a car with them or maybe show them how to cut hair? And so, that's one of the things I'm looking for right now from the community. And I would love to have community members that could maybe say I have a project or maybe a young boy or a young girl.

David Fair: That is Florence Roberson, founder and creator of the SURE Moms program in Washtenaw County. She serves as its program coordinator. To find out more about the program and the work Florence is doing, visit our website at WEMU dot org. We'll have all the links you need and get you to where you need to go. I'm David Fair and this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him atdfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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