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Support group helps imprisoned moms who've lost parental rights deal with grief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than half of the women in U.S. prisons are parents. At a women's prison in Minnesota, one group works to help mothers who've lost parental rights manage their sorrow. Minnesota Public Radio's Catharine Richert has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's what we're allowed to do.

CATHARINE RICHERT, BYLINE: A recent meeting at Minnesota's Shakopee women's prison begins with some good news.

SARA BROWN: I have been on the fence about whether or not my daughter was going to talk to me. I've talked to her every day since last week.

RICHERT: Sara Brown's been in prison since last fall. She's lost parental rights to all four of her children amidst a struggle with addiction, but it's the first time she's spoken to her oldest kid since then. Brown sits with eight other inmates who share a similar grief. Some lost their parental rights long before entering prison. Others voluntarily gave them up when they were incarcerated. In Minnesota, it's rare to regain parental rights once they've been terminated. Brown feels lucky to speak with her kids and to have people to talk to about it.

BROWN: I feel like if it wasn't for this group, I might not have been where I needed to be when this happened. I feel like I would have panicked, or I would have pushed it away.

RICHERT: This gathering is the end of a 12-week program run by Bellis. It's a nonprofit that supports women who've lost their parental rights. Executive director Jenny Eldredge says the prison support group is unique and so is the type of loss participants are asked to examine. She calls it ambiguous loss.

JENNY ELDREDGE: That is a loss for which there's no hope of closure. So it could be someone who's lost at sea. It could even be someone who has dementia.

RICHERT: Or someone who's lost the right to parent.

ELDREDGE: The child is out there and you're mourning that child, but the child's not dead. There's no funeral. No one brings casseroles to your house.

RICHERT: Eldredge says these feelings are rarely recognized by society.

ELDREDGE: We think of kids in foster care and the foster families and the adoptive families, and we should. That's right. But somehow, the mom has gotten pushed way off to the side.

RICHERT: And she says none are more overlooked than mothers in prison. So this spring, Bellis brought its support group to the Minnesota sole facility for incarcerated women, the Shakopee prison. The goal, says Eldredge, is to help the women here develop coping skills so they don't return.

ELDREDGE: The women tell us, I'm staying sober because I know I have this group to come to next week. And I have to look at these women in the eyes, and I want to be OK for them.

BETHANY JANSON GILMORE: Last check-ins, you ladies. All right.

RICHERT: At the last session, there's caramel rolls to celebrate. The women sit in a circle, the desks in front of them, decorated with brightly colored name tags, the names of their children written on the back. They talk about what they are both grateful for and sad about. Beth Shaw chimes in.

BETH SHAW: I both dislike and love my daughter's adoptive parents. I have my reasons for just having some heavy feelings towards them, but I also love them for what they're doing.

RICHERT: It's a common theme. Within this group of mothers, there's a range of relationships with their kids. Some see and talk with their children regularly because they've been adopted by relatives. Others, like Hallie Enno, have no relationship with their children, but hope that changes.

HALLIE ENNO: When I get out, I want to have my cosmetology license and actually do something with my life. And so when my son does turn 18, he'll come look for me, and I won't be all messed up on drugs or anything. I'll be sober, and I'll have a place for him, you know, there for him when I wasn't before.

RICHERT: Reconnecting with family is essential, says Joanna Woolman. She leads the Institute to Transform Child Protection at Mitchell Hamline law school.

JOANNA WOOLMAN: Every individual deserves dignity and respect. And that the sort of societal shame that we put on mothers who have done something that we perceive to be bad or wrong or doesn't live up to our expectations of what a mother should do, they pay such a heavy price.

RICHERT: Back at the Shakopee prison, Sara Brown says the group has helped her let go of the shame of not parenting her kids.

BROWN: I don't leave for a year. I'm down to my one year. But when I leave, I know that I won't ever go back because I've had - I have this second chance. Without these guys, I would still be living in that guilt and that shame of, like, failing them.

RICHERT: Before the meeting ends, facilitator Bethany Gilmer Janson (ph) offers some sobering words.

JANSON GILMORE: There's a lot of hope that your kiddos and you will reconnect, and I want to name and hold space for. They might not, right? They might not. They might not, and that grief is so hard. When that grief hits, I want you to look to others who have that shared experience.

RICHERT: Because that grief, she says, isn't meant to be felt alone.

For NPR News, I'm Catharine Richert in Shakopee, Minn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICHIKA NITO'S "ORB") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Catharine Richert

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