Cuts in federal funding meant the death of Brainerd's Planned Parenthood clinic in 2010. For the ensuing five or so years, the closest place for Crow Wing County youth to get confidential sexual health services - such as STD testing and contraception -- was a once-a-month family planning clinic in Pine River, some 30 miles northwest.
Statistics show that Crow Wing adolescents have suffered from the dearth.
The locale is home to 6,000 college students and 2,000 more in high school. For for 18 and 19-year-olds, Crow Wing's pregnancy rate is among the 10 highest of Minnesota's 87 counties. Its birth rate among women ages 18 and 19 is double Minnesota's average.
Moreover, 48 cases of chlamydia were reported in the county in 2000, according the Minnesota Department of Health. In 2015, the number had jumped to 137 cases.
In fact, Crow Wing is one of the few counties that doesn't offer any kind of public family planning or sexual health services.
WeARE Advocates for Reproductive Education has sought to fill the void. The nonprofit, founded by four area women, started in 2015. It offers monthly educational sex-talk sessions at a Brainerd teen center called The Shop. The gatherings are usually attended by 25 to 30 people, who are taught such things as how to put on a condom to STD risks. Attendees could also receive free condoms.
WeARE was distributing condoms it obtained on the down low from two public health nurses. The nurses told Becky Twamley, the group's executive director, they had hundreds of condoms from the Minnesota Department of Health. They couldn't distribute them through Crow Wing County because the community services department had refused.
"I was told they had to keep their names a secret because the county was against distributing free condoms," Twamley says. "This despite the fact that as you can see by the statistics that we're witnessing the consequences of this lack of education and services as a community."
The nonprofit's distribution was abruptly halted after Crow Wing officials caught wind of the practice. According to an article by Brainerd Dispatch reporter Chelsey Perkins, County Administrator Tim Houle said it was a no-go "because there is no policy supported by the county board" that authorizes community services employees to distribute condoms — even through a third party.
Houle tells City Pages any type of condom distribution through the county hasn't been part of the community health plan since 1997.
"Why would the county board even have to sign off on something like this is beyond me," says Twamley. "Condoms are part [of good public health policy]. But obviously, they must have thought, 'Oh, we're still having condoms handed out through us so it's got to stop.'"
The county's kibosh might be explained by Commissioner Paul Thiede.
He told the Dispatch last week: "I'm a great believer that the best condom is abstinence.… In the context of the education that we're educating, I can't find the validity when we're dealing with pregnancy that the education is in condoms."
Repeated messages left yesterday for Thiede went unreturned. County Board Chair Doug Houge and Vice Chair Rosemary Franzen did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Julie Ingleman, one of WeARE's founders, calls the kind of influence the commissioners wield over family planning "archaic" and "appalling."
"What you're seeing is the amount of control they have over these extremely important health issues," says Ingleman. "Instead of advocating for what's best for good public policy, individuals' ideology is dictating it. That's wrong."