Christine Blessinger: Lessening the Challenges Through Education
Throughout the past 20 years Christine has worked for the Indiana Department of Correction in many different positions, dedicating her career to reforming the system and focusing her boundless energy on creating opportunities through education and skill development.
Chris Blessinger started working in the juvenile justice field for the simple reason she wanted to help youths work through their challenges and become successful adults. Born in Pennsylvania, she is the eldest of three children and remains very close to her family. She moved to Indiana to attend Indiana State University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminology. Chris’ first job out of college was working as a youth care worker at a juvenile detention center. She started out in 2000 as a psychiatric social service specialist at the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, which houses 360 beds. She was promoted to program director in 2008 and then continued to rise up through the ranks in various roles within the Division of Youth Services (DYS) within the state Department of Correction ― all the way up to executive director ― before becoming the corrections department’s deputy commissioner of Re-entry and Youth Services in 2019. As deputy commissioner she oversees all areas of the juvenile division including operations, case management, programs and re-entry and serves 92 counties. Her climb upwards was supported by words of encouragement from her father: “I learned so much from him and his work ethic and how to be a good leader. He made me understand the importance of a career ― not just a job.”
In 2006 Indiana joined an effort to move away from mass incarceration and focus resources on community-based alternative supervision programs for youths. Back then, Chris was working as the program director of DYS. She witnessed the change as more than 30 counties in Indiana adopted the initiative, drastically reducing the number of young people placed in secure facilities. The cultural shift was needed. As Chris pointed out, “Secure detention is needed only for the highest-risk youth.” While she believes that “there’s always going to be a need for this [secure] kind of facility for kids who need intensive programming,” she also thinks that changing the goal from punishing youths to supporting them to succeed will yield the best results and “the numbers will continue to trend downward.”
Chris’ worked in many various roles throughout her career: She was as a youth care worker, youth manager and case manager; the first PbS State Coordinator for DYS and also a certified Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) auditor. Her experience has given her a good idea of what works with youths and what doesn’t. Helping youths succeed means creating safe, supportive environments that encourage the development of responsible youths and, as Chris says, it means making “education the top focus.” Her efforts have centered on ensuring appropriate staff ratios in facilities and programs include teachers, counselors, administrators, correctional officers and mental health professionals and engaging the youths in learning. Youths in Indiana facilities and programs are called “students.”
A little over a year ago, Chris was promoted to her current position as deputy commissioner. “I have worked really hard to get here and it is almost unbelievable for me. I have so much respect for those that have helped me.” The experience of working with adult offenders after so many years focusing on youths has given her new perspectives. “It has inspired me to focus on different aspects of reentry that I hadn’t thought about before.” While it has been challenging, the rewards have made it all worth it. “I’ve been able to help offenders get a job ― even high-paying jobs ― and succeed.” Chris' work came full circle when she had the opportunity to hire a young person she had worked with previously. Seeing what success looked like firsthand was a pivotal moment in her career: “It has been a huge inspiration to me.”
Looking back on her career, she’d say was able to rise through the ranks by listening to the advice she’d give other young women: “Be who you are and say what you feel ― don’t be afraid to speak your mind.”