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A mother's pain: Former inmates help change MN law after speaking out about post-birth separations

A record number of bipartisan, women legislators have come together to pass a first-of-its-kind prison birth policy in Minnesota.

MINNEAPOLIS — On the day after Mother's Day, an unprecedented number of women in the Minnesota legislature stood up for one of the most overlooked group of mothers in American society. 

The bipartisan legislation known as the Healthy Start Act, is now headed to the desk of Governor Walz. Once signed, it will change a Minnesota law, which separates incarcerated women from their babies just hours after giving birth. 

A record 35 women in the House of Representatives co-sponsored the legislation, but the women most responsible for the change are the mothers who shared their heart-wrenching stories of separation.

Jennifer Brown has spent the last few months trying to make up for lost time with her 14-month-old son, Elijah.

"He was born March 9th and the first time I got to see him was October 1st of 2020," Brown said. "When I went to prison, I was about four months pregnant."

A few months into her sentence at Shakopee Women's Prison, Brown was allowed to leave, briefly, for a scheduled C-section delivery. 

"There were two guards in the room with me at all times," Brown said. "That was the most difficult part, the embarrassment. Why did I get myself here? It was a first time probation violation, so there was a lot of disappointment in myself."

To help with the stresses of delivery, the Minnesota Department of Corrections launched a first of it's kind program in 2013, offering pregnant inmates a doula. While Brown appreciated the support in the operating room, nothing prepared her for what came next.

"Just 48 hours after giving birth to him, I had to pass him over to people I didn't even know," she said. "It was so hard wanting to hold him, kiss him... there was a lot of emotions. I'm getting emotional right now."

Similar emotions have been shared by nearly 278 pregnant women who have entered the Minnesota prison system since 2013. 

"I knew I was going to go to prison and I knew I was going to have her and I knew we weren't going to be together," said Jean Anderson, who gave birth to her daughter Daphney while incarcerated three years ago. "I feel like I took a lot away from her."

Anderson says she suffered from high blood pressure and gestational diabetes throughout her pregnancy, and just six days after she reported to prison, she went into labor. Daphney arrived 10 weeks early and weighed just three and a half pounds.

"For like three minutes I got to hold her and tell her that I love her," Anderson said. "and then they took her. They had to take her away to the NICU."

Anderson spent just 38 hours in the hospital before she had to return to prison. Daphney remained in the NICU for five weeks, and during that time her father was able to stay with her and sent photos to Anderson.

"Then, when it came time for her to be released (from the hospital) social services came, and they took her to a foster home," Anderson said.

It took her 15 months before Anderson cold locate her baby in the foster care system and begin to reconnect with Daphney. 

For Jennifer, the physical separation from Elijah lasted six and a half months, but she received weekly calls and monthly photos sent to her by a non-profit organization called Together for Good, which helped provide family care while she was in prison.

Though both women are now out of prison and back taking care of their children, they say their reunions also brought a new kind of trauma.

"When they went to pass (Elijah) to me, he was going back to the mom, the Together for Good mom, and was reaching back for her, crying," Anderson said. "I was like, 'Oh my god, he doesn't like me,' but he didn't know me because I didn't have him for six and a half months."

"Daphne didn't want to go to me either," Brown said. "That was the hardest part for me because I kept thinking, the whole time I was in prison, is my baby going to know who I am. Is my baby going to remember me?"

But instead of internalizing their struggles, the women, and many others, shared their stories. Their concerns helped convince the Department of Corrections and legislators to work together on a new option for new mothers.

"So what we know is that separation is temporary and it is really damaging to that baby," said Safia Khan,  Director of Government and External Relations for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. "That initial bonding period that every expert will tell us is so important, is not there."

Khan says the new Healthy Start Act allows the DOC commissioner to place pregnant women and new mothers into community and family based programs like halfway houses, for the first year of their child's life.

"The policy itself is the first-of-its-kind, prison birth policy, in the entire country," Khan said. 

"They'll have that extra support network," Brown said. "They are given the chance to be the moms they were destined to be."

Kent Erdahl: "Did you think that this would pass?"

Anderson: "No, the next moms, they're very fortunate to have that because that's everything that me and my daughter missed out on."

Kent Erdahl: "If it wasn't for your story and others like it, this might not have happened."

Brown: "Right. It takes people's stories and experiences to change people's lives. That's why I'm sitting here today being vulnerable, it's to help other people out there to understand that our mistakes don't define who we are."

Though the Healthy Start Act does limit mother and child placement to one year, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, very few women will face a return to prison. According to data from 2013-2020, 76% of pregnant women completed their sentences within one year of giving birth.

RELATED: Women lawmakers on both sides write, sign bills to end separation of newborns from incarcerated mothers

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