The visits Landon Morris had with his mother for the first eight years of his life were under close supervision surrounded by barbed wire and at most, they lasted an hour.
“There was this room that all the parents would hang out with their children and talk," said Morris, now 16. "So I knew my mom, but I never got to really know her, personally," he said.
Morris was raised by his grandmother while his mother, Shellie, served time at the Montana Women's Prison for theft-related crimes. Morris said his non-traditional upbringing made for difficult conversations with friends and classmates, but he says it brought him closer to his siblings.
Not all kids who lose a parent to incarceration are lucky enough to live with a caring relative. A 2016 Montana Child and Family Services report shows close to 3,400 kids have been thrust into the foster care system.
Joe Walsh, a counselor at Bench Elementary School, said he hears firsthand how students struggle with the absence of a parent.
“In those cases where parents aren’t involved for whatever reason, that certainly negatively impacts the kids both academically and emotionally,” said Walsh.
Another counselor at School District 2 shared a report with the Family Tree Center that showed one-in-seven students have an incarcerated parent at some point in childhood.
Walsh said SD2 is working to bulk up counseling services, but funding for additional staff is critical and voters shut those efforts down in early May.
With the rate of recidivism at one in three inmates, according to a Montana Department of Corrections report, parents often return home just to leave again.
“If you continue to come in and out, every time you do that it creates a more harmful situation for the child,” said Julie Christensen, the Nurturing Parenting Program coordinator at the Family Tree.
Christensen has spent years working with families in need at the Family Tree Center. In her time there, Christensen said she began to notice a gap in the transition from inmate to parent in the Billings community.
“There wasn’t a lot of support to help have the most difficult conversations and that is: what does repairing relationships look like?” said Christensen.
Christensen started the Voices of Incarceration Project in 2005 to help offenders learn not only how to rebuild a life with their child, but how to communicate with the child’s guardian and find support within the community.
VIP even helps returning parents learn how to set up a parent-teacher conference at their child's school.
“Love alone doesn’t take care of this parenting thing we’re supposed to do and know how to do," said Christensen. "We’re all doing the best we can with what we know.”
The eight-week VIP program helps equip parents with the tools to build relationships, creating a forum with mentors and other parents released from prison.
But VIP alone is not enough; class sizes are intentionally small to create strong connections. Walsh says families could benefit from more community-based programs like VIP.
"I joined VIP because I want to see what we can do within the school to improve our response to students," said Walsh. "And I think VIP really works to comprehensively address the needs of these families."
For Morris, the skills his mother learned before reuniting with him and his siblings were critical to their relationship. “It wasn’t forced, nothing was abrupt, we just eased into it by our choice,” said Morris.
Christensen watched Morris rebuild the connection with his mother.
“It didn’t happen overnight, but I was there to watch the relationship when mom was out for the final time and able to give him a structured home life and for mom," said Christensen. "It really was amazing.”
But the relationships aren’t easy; they’re fragile, sometimes so broken it could take years to piece back together.
Criminal Justice studies show the strongest predictor of recidivism is an offender's family ties. That's why Christensen, Walsh, and Morris agree, the best time to work on rebuilding relationships is now. These families just need help finding the starting line.