Tomiko Maling has worked as a professional photographer, for nonprofits, in government at the state and federal levels, and served on the Ferndale City Council. In February 2020, with her son a Wayne State University graduate, grown and married, she attended a goal-setting workshop in Seattle to plan the second part of her life.
Maling had been thinking about pursuing a master’s for about a decade, but wasn’t sure in what field. That was until she attended a Wayne State open house and talked with School of Social Work advisor Lawrence Robinson.
“He expressed all the things you could do with the master’s in social work, and it really seemed to match what I was interested in, which was making a difference in the community on a macro level, but also working with individuals directly,” said Maling. “I could accomplish both with this degree and, most importantly, gain a deeper understanding of how mental health affects the individual and the community. I gained an understanding of the collateral consequences that result because of lack of access and proper treatment.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Maling enrolled in classes.
She decided on pursuing the holistic defense track in the School of Social Work. Holistic defense employs an interdisciplinary team that considers both the individual and community needs when working with a person charged with a criminal offense.
Employing a holistic defense includes attending to unintended or collateral consequences of arrest and conviction, including loss of housing, removal of children or deportation, as well as basic and behavioral health needs such as food, housing, and services for mental health and substance use disorders. It requires a team knowledgeable in the law as well as problem-solving, human behavior and community resources.
“The clients I work with have experienced extreme circumstances. Poverty, neglect, abuse and violence are common. Throughout their lives, this has resulted in often ignored and untreated trauma. I work with them by listening and being a space for compassion without judgement,” Maling said. “This can mean a lot because it may be the first time someone has just listened to their story. Mitigation work is described as zealous advocacy. I work with the legal team to present the most accurate and full picture of the client before the crime, after, and what we think can be expected in the future.
“I also see myself as somebody who will work on effective policy changes. These include advocating for fair and sensible sentencing, drug laws, rehabilitation and re-entry. I think if we really want to make a difference, we have to look at the system holistically. This is not only a just practice but is fiscally responsible, considers restorative practices and has bipartisan support.”
Maling is currently wrapping up her practicum in the office of the Federal Community Defender Eastern District of Michigan.
“I was lucky to see a client be released and to meet him in person,” said Maling. “Because of mandatory minimums, nonviolent low-level defendants were charged with excessively long sentences. This has disproportionately affected communities of color. Legislators are now using evidence-based measures to correct these wrongs, but I believe there is still work to do.”
Despite the busy load of taking classes while also working for the Empowerment Plan — a nonprofit that produces coats that can be turned into sleeping bags for the unhoused, employing and providing direct support to the community — Maling will graduate a year early.
Maling says employers often comment on her diverse resume, and soon, she will begin looking for a job as a mitigation specialist helping clients and families navigating the criminal justice system.
“The theme throughout my professional career is connecting people with the larger community ultimately with the goal of elevating individual and community voice. I try to tell a complete story, whether it is with photography or as a social worker,” Maling said.