Kasani was at Eastern Connecticut State University when she became pregnant, so she decided to find her own housing off campus while going to school.
Things unraveled quickly, though.
“Once I left campus, I started hanging with the wrong people and I got in trouble,” said Kasani.
She eventually started seeking help from Roca, a nonprofit focused on helping women avoid and escape violence, to get her life back on track.
Now at 26 and with a 4-year-old daughter, Kasani, who did not give her last name and wasn’t made available to talk to reporters after an event at Roca on Wednesday, is starting an esthetician class on Monday.
“I don’t put myself in situations to get in trouble,” she said.
While other nonprofits help women escape abusive relationships, Roca’s focus is on addressing community violence by supporting women who get caught up in it.
The organization also operates in Massachusetts and in Baltimore, Maryland, including programs for men, but its focus in Hartford has been solely on women since coming to the city two years ago.
To mark its two-year anniversary, Roca issued a report summarizing its work and the women who have come to rely on its services during a commemorative event Wednesday that also included a panel discussion.
“The issues of violence and trafficking have really been a lot more acute, although we’re seeing other cities follow suit,” said Sunindiya Bhalla, executive vice president of Roca’s Women and 2Gen program.
The program has provided services to 100 women in the Hartford area since October 2021, with 90% of those clients working with Roca for more than a month.
Roca said it works with women who get arrested and commit crimes, including gun violence. Bhalla said those women end up involved, though, because they were victims of crime or experienced trauma of their own.
She said in one recent incident, a woman lured another woman into a mugging to avoid being trafficked from Hartford to another city.
Mayor Luke Bronin said conversations about violence prevention often focus on young men, but women get overlooked.
“The truth is most of the violence is actually involving older men, but we rarely talk about the women who are deeply affected by it and often involved in that violence,” he said.
Roca’s early data shows success: only 21 of the 100 women who have received services have had a new arrest since starting with the program. So far, none have had an incarceration.
Proponents said part of Roca’s success is accepting that people can have setbacks along the way, much like when treating substance abuse, but that’s not viewed as a failure.
“That’s what Roca gives these young women an opportunity to do, to grow, to explore, to try a different path, to come back,” Sharmese L. Walcott, Hartford state’s attorney and a Roca board member.
Wolcott noted many programs helping women last six to nine months, but Roca’s programming can last up to four years.
Roca said it hopes to grow its reach to between 250 and 300 young women over the next two years.
“We’ve been requested by other cities in Connecticut to expand, but funding is the biggest challenge to that,” Bhalla said.
She also said Roca, which relies on both state and local aid and on private funding, doesn’t want to see its results drop because of an expansion.
Rep. Jillian Gilchrist, D-West Hartford, who participated in Wednesday’s panel discussion, said the state needs to fund programs like Roca because it offers long-term support to help women escape violence.
She noted the legislature recently approved a bill to allow Medicaid funding to cover hospital-based violence intervention, and she thinks that should be expanded to community-based programs.
She also referenced her past efforts to impose a tax on ammunitions, with the revenues funding gun violence prevention programs.
“While we’ve invested at the federal level, we need more funding,” she said.
Gilchrest also said the legislature’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee is studying ways to ensure support for intervention programs remains consistent, regardless of governors or legislatures.
“What I found is ‘oh we used to have this program,’ and then it’s like ‘well, why’d it go away?’ Well that individual who was passionate about it moved on or retired,” she said.
Kristina Baldwin, director of Hartford’s Families, Children, Youth and Recreation Department, said officials could also offer more support to Roca’s clients with childcare.
Additionally, she said local and state officials can support Roca and similar programs by helping women find access to child care.
She also said city officials should start violence prevention programs in school earlier, instead of waiting for teenagers to show signs of trouble.