Revisiting the Healthy Start Act

Dianne Haulcy in an Ojibwe and Dakota language immersion preschool classroom run by Four Directions in conjunction with The Family Partnership

Last May, Governor Tim Walz signed the Healthy Start Act into law — passing the first legislation in the United States that allows incarcerated parents to spend the first year after giving birth with their newborns.

Previously, incarcerated pregnant individuals in Minnesota were only allowed a 36- to 72-hour departure from their correctional facility; they gave birth and were immediately separated from their newborn, who was taken into foster care or placed with a relative.

For both parent and child, postpartum early bonding is the key to healthy attachment and a healthy relationship. According to Dianne Haulcy, CEO of The Family Partnership, the first three years of a child’s life are when 80 percent of the brain develops through relationship attachment and bonding. “The stronger our relationship is with our caregiver, the more our brains are building,” Haulcy says. “It is important for the entirety of our development: physical, social, emotional, and our language and literacy.”

Haulcy also explains the negative effect that incarceration can have on children: “They may be moving from one caregiver to the next [and are] not able to form a good solid bonding and attachment experience,” she says. “Their development is stunted.”

In the year since the act was passed, four of the 19 applicants screened from Shakopee Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison, have been accepted into the program. [The print version of this article incorrectly stated that two women were accepted — there are two women currently enrolled in the program, but in total four have been approved.] This is according to Autumn Mason, a formerly incarcerated mother who is now a doula and peer support professional for the Ostara Initiative. “There are very rigid requirements and the criteria are pretty strict,” Mason says.

In order to qualify, an incarcerated pregnant person must reach their confinement release date prior to their child’s first birthday. If a person faces more than 12 months of prison time after giving birth, if they have a violent crime on their record, or if they have had parental rights revoked [for the child they are pregnant with; the print version of this article stated that previous revocation made mothers ineligible], they are likely to be denied.

“I would not have been approved under this criteria,” Mason says. “I gave birth and still had 24 months to serve. I would have rather spent 12 months with my child, nursing her, nurturing our bond, and expanding my parenting skills. [When we were separated] my child struggled a lot.

“What I have been told is that they believe that it will have a significant mental and emotional effect on the child to separate at or after [12] months,” Mason continues. “And so they are basically saying, if a mom has longer than that [left in her sentence after giving birth], it is better for the child to be separated within the first 72 hours.” 

Haulcy agrees that additional time for parent and child would be beneficial to child development. “[Twelve] months is better than nothing,” Haulcy says. “However, if in that time, the child is also developing a relationship with a second caregiver, that positive attachment is happening. When that mother does leave, that child will still have a good bonding experience with whomever they are left with.”

The Department of Corrections (DOC) was unable to respond to our story before the print deadline. They offered further context for this online story. According to Safia Khan, DOC assistant commissioner and chief of staff, everyone eligible for the program is screened — there is no application process — and the numbers of pregnant women in the legal system has been down in the past two years.

Of 23 people eligible for the program so far, four have been approved. Of those who were ineligible, six were no longer pregnant, five had parental rights terminated, four had release dates that exceeded the baby’s first birthday — bonding temporarily is not considered a good policy — and four violated terms of their release. In the future, Khan indicated, the policy will be changed so that women who violate their conditional release will remain eligible for Healthy Start.

Women were able to choose between the Covid-19 Conditional Medical Release or the Healthy Start programs, and opted to take medical release instead. “Some had concurrent federal sentences or a felony charge in another state — meaning, if we release them, we have to release them into the custody of the other state or the feds, not into the community,” Khan told us. Some candidates had prison stays shorter than 90 days. “All in all, a much smaller number of the women coming in pregnant were viable candidates.”

Khan adds: “During our testimony at the legislature and in conversations with experts, we were clear that the Healthy Start Act would not be a viable option for all pregnant women coming through our doors. Our data then showed half the pregnant women being sentenced to prison left while pregnant — they did not give birth with us. It also showed that 25 percent of women had sentence lengths greater than one year. We also were clear that the authority would end at one year and would not apply to people with longer sentences.”

Khan indicated the new program is continuing to have conversations about barriers and resources needed, and will be evaluating its policies on a regular basis. “In partnership with the Ostara Initiative and the University of Minnesota, we have been closely tracking the impact of the Healthy Start Act,” she says.

For the women who have been approved so far, Mason says, “One client was released into housing that they had established before incarceration, [which was successful]. The other client was released into a homeless shelter; she was approved to live in an overcrowded relatives unit that she did not feel safe in.”

The Ostara Initiative is in the early stages of building a program to offer supportive, safe housing to the approved clients, hopefully by the end of the year.

Since the bill is in its pilot year, Mason says that the Minnesota Prison Doula Project and other community organizations hope to propose changes, which will likely include advocating that those with longer sentences can qualify.