A mother reflects on her fugitive son: 'The connection is still there'

Charlene Briner and her son, Nick
Charlene Briner and her son, Nick, after he was released from prison in August 2016.
Courtesy of Charlene Briner

Last week, Charlene Briner got a text from her son while she was out to dinner. She didn't hear her phone buzz; she didn't read it until later.

"Hey, it's Nick again," the text said. "Still doing good. Roofing every day for last couple of weeks, 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Love you. Goodnight."

It was good to get the message. She hadn't heard from him in ten days.

"Nick, this is Mom," she wrote back. "I don't know if you'll get this message. I love you. I pray for you every day."

"Turn yourself in."

Briner's son Nick was released from prison seven months ago.

In those first few days, she got to hug him, sit down with him for dinner, take him to the mall to get shoes.

When Christmas came, it was the first time in six years that she had all three of her sons together for the holiday.

But it was a complicated homecoming. "A study in ups and downs," Briner told MPR News host Tom Weber this month.

Nick, now 24, first went to prison in 2011 on weapons charges. Those charges, Briner said, were the result of his struggle with addiction — the scramble to find cash to feed his habit. He was sentenced to five and a half years.

When he was 20, he qualified for a heavily supervised early release program. He came home. He looked for work. He enrolled in community college.

"It was overwhelming," Briner said in August, just weeks before Nick was released for the second time. The first time he was released, "he thought that he could make some money by selling drugs again, and when you're selling drugs, you're around drugs. And when you're around drugs and you're an addict, you start to use drugs."

He went on the run but was caught, and returned to prison.

When Nick was released again, this August, Briner was hopeful. But she knew the harsh realities people with a felony on their record face. She's the deputy commissioner of Minnesota's Department of Education, so "in addition to being a mother, I also have access to a lot of research in public policy," she said.

She knows the obstacles: "It's obtaining basic things you need to navigate society. It's stable housing. It's steady income from a job. Those are some of the major hurdles that people have to overcome — not to mention all of the biases people have about former inmates."

She decided the best thing for Nick would be to live with her again.

"The thinking was that stable housing would allow Nick at least some breathing room, to be deliberate about a job search. He didn't have to worry about where rent was coming from, or if he'd have a place to sleep next week or next month," Briner said.

In those first weeks, he was hungry for work, she said. He took whatever odd jobs he could find: landscaping, setting up mall exhibits, cleaning out a warehouse, roofing.

But "more doors are closed than open just because people are afraid to take a chance. There are a lot of doors closed because of his lack of formal education, and his lack of experience in the workforce. There was a constant series of 'no's'."

He kept at it, and "did really well for a number of months," Briner said. But the temporary nature of his jobs left him with employment gaps. Those gaps lengthened as seasonal holiday work dried up.

"Down time and the lack of structure is dangerous for someone like Nick," she said.

Eventually, he failed a drug test. Then he failed another drug test. Then he didn't report to outpatient treatment. Then he didn't report to his parole officer. Then he didn't come home.

"Nick took off," Briner said. "And as of today, I'm not sure where he's at."

As of Feb. 1, 2017, Nick Briner is a fugitive.

His mother has only heard from him a handful of times, via texts from blocked numbers.

"There's always a sense of relief that he's alive," she said, when she gets them. She's not sure how accurate the roofing story is.

"I don't know if it's true. I don't know if it's designed to make me feel better, or if it's a story he's telling himself about what he wants to do, or if he has somehow managed to find himself three miles or 30 miles or 300 miles away, on some kind of crew where he's getting paid under the table. I don't know."

But she no longer lets her son's life consume her own. She's been dealing with his addiction since his early teenage years, and has seen him through numerous brushes with the law.

There was a time when receiving a text from him on the run "would have spurred a flurry of activity," she said. "Now, what it did is give me a sense of peace that for today, and for now, he's alive. And he's got the wherewithal to reach out to me and that connection between us is not broken.

"It may be frayed. And it may be a little tenuous, because he's not in front of me and he's making decisions that are against the law and I believe are morally wrong. But the connection is still there."

Briner has written extensively about her experience with her son on Medium. She realized, early on, that there's no support group for the parents of fugitives still on the run. But in a way, the audience she's found through writing her family's story has provided that support.

"I have found the power that has come from sharing your story — not just to tell your story, but to take in the gifts and the lessons from other people's stories. I would simply say to anyone out there going through something similar: Find someone you can talk to."

And to Nick, she would say: "I love you. You are on my mind everywhere. I'm okay. Alex and Nathaniel are okay. I pray for you every day."

And: "Please turn yourself in, because there's still a way forward."

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