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Shelter from intimate partner violence often begins at the emergency room

Statistics show it takes a victim roughly seven times to leave an abusive and violent partner. Intimate partner violence can be an overwhelmingly isolating situation, but the reality is the victim is never alone, and often they have an entire department of people waiting by to support them.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in five women and one in seven men report having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. There are many negative health outcomes associated with intimate partner violence, including those affecting the heart, digestive, reproduction, muscle and bones, and nervous systems — many of which are chronic.

From the very first injury to any related health issues, many victims find themselves at some point or another inside an emergency room.

Patient intake

At the Allina Health hospitals and in both Owatonna and Faribault, policies have long in place to allow for emergency room staff to help victims of domestic violence. Leaders in both departments say this is a crucial practice, as hospital emergency rooms are often the first point of contact of domestic violence victims.

“We screen all our patients that come into the ER and have a set of questions that are a part of our initial triage process … we directly ask people if they are being hit, kicked, pushed or yelled at,” said Samantha Meyer, the patient care director for the District One Emergency Department in Faribault.

Jessica Whipps, the patient care director for the Owatonna Hospital Emergency Department, said her staff asks the same set of questions of every ED patient, despite their reason for being there. She said this helps identify anyone who may need additional resources and medical care as it directly relates to domestic violence.

The roadblock, however, is intimate partner violence does not fall under the category of mandated reporting.

“When it comes to a patient coming in to be treated for [domestic violence], we would only report that with the victim’s consent,” Whipps said. “We don’t want it to turn into us trying to coerce them, it’s about providing care that will benefit them.”

Meyer echoed Whipps, stating that when it comes to the medical health industry interacting with victims of intimate partner violence, it really boils down to following a patient’s lead.

“If they just want us to care for their injuries and nothing else, we can do that. We will treat them and send them home,” Meyer said. “We want to support a patient with where they are at.”

Beyond medical care

Unless the violence at home involves a child or a vulnerable adult, Meyer said the level of care a victim receives is entirely up to them. There is, however, a plethora of resources are available inside an emergency room.

“We help facilitate making reports to law enforcement, we can provide the safe space for them in the short term, and we can connect them with the HOPE Center here in [Faribault],” Meyer said. “We can do everything from the basics of assessing, evaluating and treating their injuries to starting the reporting process.”

In Owatonna, Whipps said they refer patients to the Crisis Resource Center of Steele County, who will send an advocate to the emergency room as soon as possible to meet with a victim and provide them with whatever they need. Soon, however, Whipps said they are hoping to bring another resource from directly within the hospital.

Sexual assault nurse examiners — or SANE nurses — are forensic nurses who are trained through Allina’s sexual assault program. Not only are they trained to work with victims of sexual assault, but Whipps said they also receive specialized training in domestic abuse cases.

“We are currently in the process of training nurses here to respond to intimate partner violence, though I don’t have a date for when that will officially roll out,” Whipps said. “But moving forward, we will hopefully have our SANE nurses to work with these patients in conjunctions with the Crisis Resource Center.”

Both hospitals also have on-site social workers who are available to serve patients if requested.

Creating a safe space

Though the emergency departments staffs are trained and ready to assist patients beyond the medical care their injuries require, both women said it is far too common for victims of intimate partner violence to be unwilling for one reason or another to disclose the true severity of their living situation.

“We want to open the door for patients to feel they can share anything with us,” Meyer said. “If patients are not alone in the ER because maybe they have a family member of a significant other with them, we will actually mark a box on that initial triage that we were unable to assess them because of that reasons and then will follow up with them at a later date.”

Regardless, there are still situations where a victim does not open up to the ER staff that they are experience violence at home. Whipps said there are several red flags that alert staff of likely intimate partner violence, ranging from repeat visits for similar injuries to a patient’s general demeanor, but they cannot force a potential victim to tell the hospital staff what the cause of the injuries are.

“It’s always difficult in those situations,” Whipps said. “One of the things we do is our mission and our goal as caregivers is to provide whole-person care and be sure we are treating the patient in every way that we can, but part of that is also meeting the patient where they are at then in that moment.”

Meyer agreed that is can be hard for medical health professionals to see a patient who is hurting, but unable to treat the pain beyond the physical injuries presented to them. Because of that, though, she said it is even more paramount that they build good relationships with these patients.

“The more we build a trusting relationships, the more we respect them and treat them and help them, the more likely that the next time we seem them coming to the ER that will be the time they are ready to report,” Meyer said. “We are here, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. We have a system of safeguards in place. You can come in and be listed as a private encounter and no one will know you are here. We have security that will keep you safe. The hospital is still a safe place to come and we would love the opportunity to help you wherever you are on this journey.”

Whipps agreed that letting people know the emergency room is a safe place to turn to is one of the most important messages she wants to share.

“You didn’t deserve this and this is not your fault,” Whipps wants victims to know. “We are here to support you. There is help and hope. You are not alone.”

Local agencies support the children of incarcerated parents
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With profound impacts on mental health, social life, educational prospects and likelihood for being incarcerated themselves, a child’s experience of having a parent spend time in prison is serious enough to merit the attention of community groups the nation over, including here in southern Minnesota.

It’s a statewide issue, according to a 2017 report from the University of Minnesota. The report found that on any given day, an estimated 9,898 children under 18 have a parent incarcerated in a county correctional facility in Minnesota, and that two out of every three adults in county facilities are parents of at least one child under 18. Women were slightly more likely to report being parents than men.

Supporting the children

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota, a nonprofit that provides one-on-one mentoring support and services to youth in Dodge, Rice, Steele and Waseca counties, 22% of children enrolled in the program have at least one parent that is either currently incarcerated or has been involved with the penal system in the past, including serving time in prison, probation and parole, according to Tressa Smallbrock, program director at BBBS.

When Michelle Redman, BBBS executive director, talks about the experience for children of having an incarcerated parent, she emphasizes the number of different impacts it can have, including future or current substance abuse, self-harm and even social stigma.

“If your parents are divorced, that can be an ACE [adverse childhood experience], but it’s maybe not the same as if your parents are incarcerated,” Redman said. “The [thing] that sets [having] an incarcerated parent apart is the trauma and stigma and pain that can come with that.”

Organizations and institutions that can help the children of incarcerated parents, including schools, teachers and social workers that can provide children with a safe haven they may not have at home, as well as an outlet to talk about the trauma they have dealt with or are still processing.

The power of those safe spaces is why it’s so important to have children back in school, Redman said, since distance learning didn’t always give those children the extra support they needed when they needed it.

Plus, according to Redman, stabilizing mentors like those provided through organizations like BBBS can lessen the impact of adverse childhood experiences on children. This is especially the case when a child only has one parent taking care of them and that parent becomes incarcerated, resulting in the child being sent into the foster system or to live with distant relatives.

“Any kind of interruption to their family can be very devastating,” Redman said. “Having that additional positive role model in their life to be there for them … it’s not gonna change the situation, but having that person to give them time to express their feelings and talk about what they’re going through is so very important.”

That includes taking the children out to have fun, letting kids be kids and play without having “all the worries of the world on your shoulder,” she said.

Helping the parents

Kathey Huisman, supervised visitation coordinator at the Exchange Club Center for Family Unity, located in Owatonna and serving Dodge, Freeborn, Rice, Steele and Waseca counties, works more on the parent side of the equation. Beyond offering classes for parents, the Center for Family Unity also facilitates communication between children and incarcerated parents. One challenging situation she’s worked with in the past is when parents are incarcerated when their children are still very young and released when they’re old enough to talk — or talk back.

“How does a parent deal with that?” Huisman asked, adding that the role of the center is to guide parents through those confusing and challenging situations.

Ultimately, Huisman said, the most important thing is for kids to know that they’re loved, and what their parent did doesn’t reflect on them.

Digging deeper

The impact on a child’s mental health and self-esteem, and how they internalize and process the actions of their parents, is a complicated process to which community organizations like the Center for Family Unity attempt to give structure and safety.

“With parents in jail or prison … it’s just like a death, because they’re taken away,” Huisman said.

Becky Ford, director of Faribault Youth Investment, helped conduct an 18-month-long project investigating the prevalence of children with incarcerated parents, and in particular how agencies can and do support them. One of the things that stuck out to her was the loss of economic contribution from a parent being incarcerated, which can lead to dire outcomes for children, including food insecurity and homelessness.

“There’s a lot of collateral damage that can come,” Ford said. “It really depends on the family and their situation. If families have a strong social support network, they can draw strength from those things, but if they’re not well-connected and don’t have those built-in social supports, it’s more difficult.”

While there are many things that government and nonprofit agencies and community groups can do to help the children of incarcerated parents, Ford said the most important first step anybody can take is recognizing and becoming aware of the problem.

“It’s hard for people to talk about openly, so creating safe spaces for people just to talk and express emotions and receive support is really important and that can take place in all kinds of places,” she said. “Everybody’s story is not the same and supporting people regardless, I think, is important.”

Crash ignites fire at Warsaw Town Hall, killing driver
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Rice County Sheriff’s deputies are investigating a Thursday night crash about a mile west of Faribault that killed the driver and ignited a fire at the Warsaw Town Hall.

The driver, who hasn’t been identified, was traveling westbound on 230th Street at about 9:30 p.m. when their vehicle crashed into the town hall that sat at the roadway’s intersection with Dalton Avenue, according to a release from the Rice County Sheriff ’s Office.

Both the vehicle and building started on fire. Deputies attempted to clear the vehicle, but were unable to due the intense heat and fire.

Once the fire was under control, emergency responders located human remains in the driver’s compartment of the vehicle. The body was transported to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office for identification and an autopsy.

The town hall, which sat at a T-intersection, had often been hit by errant drivers.

A crash this winter that left the front end of the historic town hall boarded up pushed Warsaw Township residents to ask the township officials to replace the hall altogether. While bids to repair the 1920 structure came in around $30,000, the new town hall situated further back on the site was expected to cost an additional $100,000.

Warsaw Town Board Chair Ryan White said Friday that while he anticipates some insurance money from the loss of the town hall, he’s unsure how much that might be. Rice County records show the building had an assessed value of about $33,000.

The new hall, which sits just past the old one, should be complete by the first of the year. In the meantime, town board meetings will be held on the same schedule — 7 p.m. on the second Monday of the month — but move to the Channel Inn, 23219 Farwell Ave.

The new building will be considerably larger than the old one, 1,750 square feet compared to 960, and have modern amenities including a bathroom, kitchenette and air conditioning, things few town halls in southern Minnesota offer.

While the township has recovered a safe from inside the old hall, now little more than a pile of rubble, White doubts its contents are salvageable. But township records are safe, he said. They were recently digitized and are stored at the Rice County Historical Society.

Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn in March said that there have been several crashes at the site in recent years and that the problem continued even though the county Highway Department installed rumble strips to help alert drivers to stop. While one driver failed to stop at the intersection due to thick fog, Dunn said the main issue is with inattentive or impaired drivers.

Also responding to the scene Thursday was the Morristown Fire/Rescue Department, Faribault Fire and Rescue, Minnesota State Patrol and North Ambulance.

School Board agrees 3rd administrator will help stem FMS behavioral issues
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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, behavioral issues at Faribault Middle School were improving. With students back in their seats, those problems are back.

Faribault School Board members at the Oct. 26 meeting voted 6-0 to hire a dean of students for the middle school to take on behavioral issues that board members expressed concern were significantly disrupting education. As of Friday, the position has been posted to the school system’s website.

An adjustment period

School Board member Courtney Cavellier began the discussion by saying that many of the behavioral problems Faribault Middle School is dealing with are being dealt with in school systems across the country.

“Kids have had a difficult year and a half, and there’s an adjustment period that’s going on,” Cavellier said, adding that Principal Joe Sage, who could not attend the meeting, recommended the dean of students position be reinstated to help with the problem.

School Board member John Bellingham said he was concerned about where the district stood in terms of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds provided by the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act to spend through September 2024. Superintendent Todd Sesker said the goal is to use those funds while they’re available because they will disappear if they are not used.

“We’re pretty comfortable with where we are with the ESSER funds,” Sesker said.

School Board member Carolyn Treadway said that while she is in favor of the dean of students position being added, she is also concerned about the same behavior being witnessed in Faribault’s elementary school buildings. She said that administrators there are “overwhelmed” and suggested Sesker look into providing support to the elementary administration too, though she admitted it’s “difficult” to consider adding more administrative positions.

“This is the most difficult year I’ve heard from teachers, support staff and administration,” she said.

Sesker said he would look into funding for elementary administration.

School Board member Chad Wolff expressed support for the dean of students position, saying that if the district doesn’t “get a handle on behavior this year, it will only continue into future years.”

“We don’t have a choice,” he said.

A return on investment

Sesker pointed out that the school system’s interventions into behavioral issues at the middle school were successful in prior years and expressed hope that the district could claw back those improvements with a new dean of students.

Indeed, according to data presented by Director of Teaching Ryan Krominga in December 2019, attendance for the 2018-19 school year at Faribault Middle School was up to 84%, an increase from 80% the prior year. Suspensions also dropped dramatically, with around 500 in-school suspensions being issued in the first quarter of 2017-18 compared to just over 200 in the first quarter of 2019-20. Out-of-school suspensions dropped from 69 in the first quarter of 2019-20 compared to 25 in the first quarter of 2018-19.

Sesker emphasized that the primary focus of the district is to continue focusing on “positive restorative justice” as a way of curbing bad behavior. That means helping students understand what they’ve done wrong and having them compensate by doing something positive for the school. The goal is to enhance the relationship between school staff and families to stop bad behavior from occurring in the future.

Unfortunately, he went on, students and staff are now dealing with more serious mental health and environmental challenges as they readjust to in-person school. The district is still “trying to instill this positive behavior with students, but right now, the positive behavior is not there,” he said, adding that the dean position might be necessary to prevent some of the worst disruptions to learning.

Assistant Principal Joel Young, standing in for Sage, said that adding the position would be a “return on investment” in that it would allow other administrators to do their own jobs more effectively without having to supervise students. The dean could also work with teachers on classroom management strategies and coordinate work with counselors and social workers.

Before going to a vote, Young said he wanted to make sure that the discussion over behavioral problems at the middle school wasn’t “painting a picture that the middle school’s not safe.”

“Our middle school has fewer big conflicts per day or month than a typical family with siblings,” he joked. He added that young learners are facing a significant learning curve with in-person education on top of the mental health problems and challenges that always crop up when students enter middle school, pandemic or no pandemic.

“Middle school’s a tough time,” he said. “This dean position will hopefully allow us to manage that.”