By Eric Timmons
Melinda Howe went downstairs to look for a towel, leaving her 11-month old daughter in the bath.
When she returned, her baby was struggling in the water, drowning. Howe was able to save her, but not before she suffered a traumatic brain injury that would upend both of their lives.
Howe, a La Crosse native, was a 19-year-old single mother at the time. She’s 34 now, and two years out of prison, where she served a five year sentence for dealing heroin, among other charges. Howe has two other kids, including a 10-year-old son she hasn’t seen for seven years. She’s hoping one day she’ll be able to bring him home.
When Howe speaks, her thoughts tumble out quickly and twist and turn down a maze of memories. She has a lot to say about the mistakes she’s made, the system she’s up against, and she wants to get it all out, in the hope that her experience may help others.
Howe’s own mother was 15 when she had her. By age 14, Howe was experimenting with drugs, running away from home, and soon was caught in the grip of the courts and the juvenile detention system.
“I was inappropriately medicating myself because I never really had anybody to talk to, to explain my feelings and my emotions so it was easier to just drink or smoke or act out,” she said.
At 17, she was serving time in the former Huber detention center run by La Crosse County, which allowed her to leave during the day and walk to Western Technical College, where she got her GED.
“I didn’t at all think I was going to graduate so when they read my name off and I passed everything I cried the happiest tears,” she said. “I think it was the first time I cried happy tears instead of sad tears. That was the first time I proved to myself that you can do things that you’re not even aware that you’re capable of.”
Not long after graduating, she was pregnant with her first child. She enjoyed being a mom and had managed to get a good job but was still wrestling with her own mental health issues. Then, her daughter’s near-drowning changed things completely. Doctors broke the news that her child had suffered a hypoxic brain injury that would require months of hospitalization.
“I thought I was going to go home with my baby in a couple of days,” Howe recalled. “We were at Mayo Clinic in Rochester for about five months, we lived there.”
Holding down a full-time job was now out of the picture for Howe. She regrets the decisions she made to continue supporting her young family, but she doesn’t hide from them.
“At that time, given the resources I had with the drug dealers and users in my life, I resorted to getting funds that way, because now I could no longer work and I had to take care of my children,” Howe said.
Her daughter now needed constant care, and there wasn’t much time for Howe to focus on anything except putting one foot in front of the other, although she’s quick to say that’s not an excuse.
“My baby needed 24 hour care, needed to relearn everything, movements, how to hold her head. She was like a newborn baby at 11 months old,” Howe said, “It took me a long time to grasp that and I still haven’t all the way.”
Howe was determined to do everything she could for her daughter and when she heard of an intensive rehab program in Iowa, she jumped at the opportunity. It meant four hours in the car every day, with several hours of therapy sandwiched in between, for three weeks. Howe couldn’t get the therapy covered under public insurance. The out-of-pocket cost was $10,500.
“I should have figured out a different way to pay for it, but that’s where I fell short,” Howe said.
In 2013, the law caught up with her. She was arrested and charged with delivery of heroin, her first time getting into serious trouble as an adult. She didn’t take it well. The arrest seemed to trigger something in her, and she was caught driving under the influence while out on bond, which compounded her problems when she got to court.
Howe ended up with a nine-year sentence. She would serve five years in prisons in Fond du Lac and Union Grove, and then be released for four years of supervised probation.
While she was inside, Howe’s two daughters went to different relatives and her son went into foster care, where he’s remained since then. For the five years she was incarcerated, she didn’t see her children once.
“Nobody brought my kids to see me,” Howe said. “When I went away it was very hard for them to understand where I was and who are these people they’d only known minimally, whether they are relatives or not. My kids were always with me before.”
Now Howe is out, and trying to get her life back together, fighting to see her son. She’s not allowed to speak to him, but he can speak with his siblings on video calls. She’s working to regain custody, but it’s an uphill battle.
“Who knows what has happened in the seven years since I’ve seen him, I drive myself nuts thinking about it, but I’m absolutely still hopeful and I’m trying to follow every recommendation to get him back,” she said. “They sometimes give him my letters and pictures, I just keep trying, I keep sending him cards, I keep sending him presents.”
In between all of this, Howe managed to go to college, albeit briefly. She attended Globe University in Onalaska to study to become a medical assistant but dropped out after eight months. The college has since shut down, after being accused by the federal government of deceptive practices and abusing taxpayer funds. Howe’s brief time at college left her with $25,000 in debt and no qualification. She also owes money to lawyers, the courts and others, and has the choice of either trying to make $500 monthly payments on that debt, or going to court and getting that amount garnished from any wages she earns.
“How do you ever get out from under that?,” she said.
Throughout all of her struggles, Howe has been battling her own mental health and addiction issues and faced a legal system that she says has belittled and doubted her at every turn. She thinks the authorities in La Crosse will always see her negatively and that makes her want to leave.
“I want to get my son back and I just want to move out of La Crosse County, I feel like I don’t know how to feel nothing but emptiness here,” she said.
Howe has dreams of going back to college, maybe becoming a substance abuse counselor. Whatever happens, she’s not going to give up. A tattoo, inked down the side of her arm, says “Trust your struggle.” It’s a motto she lives by.
“At first when you fall, you get really intimidated, you beat yourself up and wonder what’s going on,” she said. “Now, I just think all this is equipping me for something bigger in the future, that scares me that there’s something else I’ve got to go through, but I really believe that. So I had to learn and adapt and train my brain to be comfortable with the struggle, to endure the struggle, versus fighting it and being ashamed. No, just own it.”
Howe may have made mistakes, but she has also overcome incredible odds just to stand where she is today. She’s proud of that. One day, she hopes her life will be easier, and that others coming up in the sort of conditions she endured might have it easier too. But how might that happen?
“Support people,” Howe said. “Listen to them, and give them the support, it’s as simple as that. I didn’t always have that support when I was young; I hope others can.”
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