Life is not easy for the children of incarcerated parents.
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.
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.
Supporting the children
At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota (BBBS), an Owatonna-based 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, executive director of BBBS, 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.”
Fortunately, there are organizations and institutions that can help the children of incarcerated parents. These include schools, teachers and social workers who 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.
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 instability 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.”
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 conditions affecting the heart, digestive, reproduction, muscle and bones, and nervous systems — many of which are chronic.
From the very first injury to any of the above listed health issues, many victims find themselves at some point or another inside an emergency room.
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 have policies in place for domestic violence, both with what we can do and what we can’t,” said Samantha Meyer, the patient care director for the District One Emergency Department in Faribault. “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.”
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.”
Enrollment at Blooming Prairie Public Schools has been increasing steadily for the past several years, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading the Elementary School to meet its capacity. Two classrooms have been displaced. Art classes are being held in the basement cafeteria and the music class is sharing a space with the SMART room.
These factors and more have led to the district offering up a two question bond referendum on the voting ballot this year. Voters will determine the fate of that referendum during on Tuesday, Nov. 2.
Question one reads as follows on the ballot:
“Shall the board of Independent School District No. 756 (Blooming Prairie), Minnesota be authorized to issue general obligation school building bonds in an amount not to exceed $27,590,000 for acquisition and betterment of school sites and facilities including, but not limited to, construction to relocate 5th and 6th grade to the high school, additional high school facility improvements including performing arts addition and elementary facility improvements?”
Question two reads:
“If School District Question 1 is approved, shall the board of Independent School DIstrict No. 756 (Blooming Prairie), Minnesota be authorized to issue general obligation school b building bonds of the School District in an aggregate amount not to exceed $6,400,000 for acquisition and betterment of school sites and facilities including, but not limited to, construction of an additional gymnasium facility at the High School?”
The second question may not pass without the first passing, but the first question may pass without the second.
The potential impact
“The arts are one of the areas that would get a big boost. Performing arts like band, choir, musical, one act play, and speech would receive a tremendous upgrade,” said Nate Piller, art teacher at the Blooming Prairie High School. “Elementary, junior high, high school students would have a suitable place to perform where seeing — and especially hearing — would be vastly improved. We have always had great student commitment to co-curricular activities but in some cases the facilities have been significantly less than ideal.”
Space at the high school for high-demand classes for career and tech education is limited, according to district officials. There is minimal flex learning space for students to do independent study, and the shared gymnasium and performing arts space hinders the time available for each program. While the gym is in use for physical education class or sports practices, the performing arts students are not able to use the space and vice versa.
“We’ve seen an uptick in interests in the trades and have tried to reflect that with our course offerings, but they would also benefit from improved funding and renovations,” Piller said. “Those career choices are in high demand so preparing our students by teaching them more trade skills is also exciting.”
Community members are curious where the money for such a large undertaking will come from and how their property taxes will be affected.
According to Tony Sjolander, director of project planning and development through Kraus-Anderson Construction Company, the average home value in the Blooming Prairie School District is around $140,000. An example for the tax impact indicated that the property tax increase on a $150,000 dollar home would be approximately $185 annually.
Project leaders noted that homeowners in the community would qualify for a residential property tax refund. If this refund is applied, the adjusted increase would equal out to about $62 a year. There is a tax calculator available on the district’s website for those curious how this would affect their home.
As for funding, it is estimated that 37% of the funds would be from properties, such as residential, commercial, or non-homestead. An additional 38% would be paid by state aid, and the remaining 25% by agricultural land and buildings.
Sjolander stressed that the public consider the need as a whole, rather than focusing on the cost of the line items. He said a proper environment with good quality air and lighting, as studies have shown, has a significant impact on learning for students.
The group behind the planning of this project stresses that now is the time to act, because the need is there to foster a positive learning environment for the students, but also because there are currently record low interest rates in place.
Continuously doing quick fixes on maintenance and repairs is not sustainable in the long run either, district leaders said.
Early in-person voting is happening now through Monday, Nov. 1, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. at the school district office in the high school.
Voting on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2, with take place at the City Center located at 138 Hwy Ave S in Blooming Prairie between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.