‘A poverty of connections’
Attorney Cresston Gackle, who almost exclusively represents children and youth as a public defender, said a poverty of connections can result in bad outcomes for youth and families in the court system. He spoke during last week’s Promoting Peace conference at Trinity Lutheran Church. Staff photo by Joni Hubred
If you grew up in a caring neighborhood or a close family–or both–consider yourself fortunate.
Those connections provided an important resource, for help with car rides or food when your pantry was bare, maybe even childcare or temporary shelter. And as 120 attendees at the Sept. 20 Promoting Peace conference in Owatonna learned, those who are poor often do not have anyone to fall back on.
A team led by Third District Court Judge Karen Duncan launched the conference in 2014. Attendees included people who work in or are connected to the legal system, as well as anyone who was interested in this year’s topic: Poverty and Public Safety.
A full day of activities included a “poverty simulator” led by Trina Kasper and Amanda Griswold of Owatonna Public Schools. The day’s final speaker was Cresston Gackle, a private attorney and public defender who also “almost exclusively” represents youth and children in court.
“I advocate for what they directly say they want,” he said. “I am their voice… inside and outside the courtroom. I hear them as a counselor and a mentor.”
Gackle described poverty as “a constellation of things” that includes “a poverty of connections” that shows up repeatedly. Poverty’s effects ripple across generations, he said, and addressing requires a huge investment, “but change starts with a single call, a single conversation, and a single kept commitment, something each of us in this room are fully capable of doing.”
Gackle used an analogy of crossing the Mississippi River to discuss how people face challenges in their lives. The river is easily crossed on foot at the headwaters, but most who cross at its widest point are driving across a bridge, in a boat, or flying over. He asked everyone to imagine having to cross at the widest point on foot.
“Context matters,” Gackle said. “What might have seemed straightforward to us… the same task would be impossible for others to do the same way.”
He then shared the stories of three young people, with names and details of their stories changed to protect their privacy. “Alex,” “Brady,” and “Casey” all had childhoods marred by trauma, poverty, and abuse.
Alex ended up missing court dates–his parents lived apart, and his father didn’t forward important notices that had been mailed to his home. Alex didn’t have a car, and though he was working, he had trouble asking his employer for time off to go to court.
Those issues also show up for adults, Gackle said, along with the cost of retaining an attorney. The consequences include losing motions and cases, judgements being made against them, or warrants issued for their arrest.
“Poverty limits the flexibility, responsiveness, access and ability for a person to engage with the legal system,” he said. “If you don’t have the time, if you don’t get the hearing notice, if you can’t make the time to take off work… and if you don’t have access to legal expertise or know someone who does, you will have to find a way to cross the Mississippi River at its widest without access to a bridge.”
Working through a smartphone app, attendees were able to participate in Gackle’s presentation by submitting responses to his questions. When he asked how courts could be more responsive, for instance, they came up with ideas that included “Zoom rooms” at the courthouse, financial aid, transportation vouchers, walk-in hearings, and evening hours.
“Casey” showed what happens when a family situation escalates to the point where police are called. During an argument, Casey ended up in a physical altercation with their mother over playing music, what was likely a self-soothing activity. Even though Casey’s grandparents had volunteered to provide care, Casey was arrested and taken to a juvenile detention center several counties away.
Gackle also noted that Mom had used homophobic slurs repeatedly during the incident, and at the end of the fight, only Casey was bleeding. The child had also suffered unreported assaults before and after the incident.
Because no one took a minute to cool off, Gackle said, Casey moved into what often becomes a “revolving door” for people with mental health issues.
Attendees through the app suggested a variety of community tools that would be helpful with family disputes: affordable counseling for all, emergency shelter, crisis intervention, respite care/safe space, a family advocate, a youth shelter.
Gackle said “the only truly amazing and good outcomes occur when someone stuck their neck out.” That applies not only to the people trying to cross that river, but to the entire community–as every attempt to connect brings the community closer together.
“No one wants to be a problem to solve,” he said. “They want to be seen and heard… This is never about saving anyone. It’s about connecting.