Julio Vasquez, Manager of Family Services at The Fortune Society

Healing Bonds Between Fathers and Children After Incarceration

Monday, June 13, 2016

Every Father’s Day, families around the nation celebrate the dedication and nurturing support that fathers give to their children. On this day, most fathers will receive gifts, cards, hugs, kisses, and “thank you’s.” Many will spend the day with their children and cherish the special bonds they share together. For fathers serving time in jails and prisons, however, Father’s Day will be very different.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2007, America’s prisons held about 744,200 fathers. On Father’s Day, children of these incarcerated fathers will have to travel long distances to visit and will experience the sorrow of seeing their fathers in prison rather than at home. Others will not be able to visit their fathers at all on this special day.

These fathers may feel ashamed, frustrated, and saddened as they remember that they cannot support their children and be present for them. Father’s Day reminds incarcerated fathers that their time behind bars could have been spent taking care of their children and bonding with their families. They realize that their children are growing up without them and may feel as if they have failed to carry out the duties of fatherhood.

Incarcerating fathers can lead to significant emotional trauma for families and leave damaging effects on society. Often, there is a large physical distance separating children and the jails and prisons that their fathers reside in. This limits opportunities for visitation, and as a result, some children will never meet their fathers and will grow up without their guidance. Other forms of communication, such as phone calls and writing letters, can be expensive for low-income families. This discourages children from reaching out to and connecting with their fathers.

More than one-third of minor children will reach the age 18 while their parent is incarcerated (Bureau of Justice Statistics). Growing up without a father can affect crucial aspects of children’s development during this time and affect them into adulthood. When children have an incarcerated parent they are six times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system themselves (U.S. Department of Justice). This sets in motion cycles of recidivism that are difficult to break.

In addition, recent studies have shown that children with fathers in prison have greater chances of growing up in poverty and experiencing financial instability (Geller et al. 2009; Phillips et al. 2006). According to the National Academy of Sciences, “fathers’ incarceration and family hardship, including housing insecurity and behavioral problems in children, are strongly related.”

Unfortunately, many fathers are serving long prison sentences for nonviolent offenses such as charges relating to narcotics. In fact, incarcerated individuals who have committed drug and public-order offenses in state and federal prisons were more likely to have children than those who committed violent offenses (Bureau of Justice Statistics).

Decreasing prison sentences for low-level offenses such as possession of a controlled substance and replacing them with community-based sentencing options is one way to address the mass incarceration of fathers. There is no need for fathers to be separated from their children for long periods of time when research consistently shows the harmful effects incarceration has on individuals, families and communities. It is also unfair to children, who must pay a steep price and sacrifice their development.

There must also be more programs dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated fathers reintegrate back into their communities and learn parenting skills. The Fortune Society’s Family Services unit has successfully provided such services. For years, we have helped justice involved fathers access the resources and knowledge they need to become caring parents and role models for their children.

Our most recent issue of the Fortune News focuses on the issues that justice involved families face and celebrates the success of our Family Services unit in healing relationships and reuniting children with their parents. This issue of the Fortune News also highlights the impact of mass incarceration on our clients who were fathers.

One story in the Fortune News features Denzel Menter, a former client who was able to mend his relationship with his young daughter and her mother through Family Services. Before coming to Fortune, Denzel had difficulty communicating with Selena’s mother, who did not want him to visit Selena. Because of Fortune, Denzel acquired the skills he needed to become a caring parent and to communicate with Selena’s mother respectfully. He wrote, I was ready to give up, but thankfully, Fortune’s staff gave me hope and emphasized how important it was for Selena to have a father in her life.

As a result, he now sees his daughter almost every weekend and has become a positive presence for her. Family Services both allowed Denzel to experience the joys of fatherhood and enabled Selena to lead a more complete life with the support of her father.

In another piece, our Vice President of Programs, Peggy Arroyo, explained why it is crucial for children to see their incarcerated fathers using her first-hand experiences. She also described the creation of Fortune’s first fathers program called “The Right Step,” which was established with the direct involvement of our own clients who were fathers. Through this program, formerly incarcerated fathers were able to receive legal advice in child support, visitation, and custody cases, learn about the skills and values they need as parents and attend family gatherings that united fathers with their children.

Over the years, the effect of Fortune’s services for formerly incarcerated fathers has extended beyond our own clients and into the community. Peggy wrote, Along with our partners, Fortune has truly been influential in encouraging the Office of Child Support Enforcement to understand that the fathers we work with are not “deadbeat dads,” but are fathers who want to take the “right step” but were struggling to make a successful reentry into the community through employment and vocational training. OCSE has since instituted numerous father-friendly programs that support father’s engagement with their children.

On Father’s Day, Fortune will also remember fathers who are impacted by the criminal justice system. Through our services, we will continue to advocate against mass incarceration and support people in the process of rebuilding their lives and growing as nurturing parents.

Read The Fortune Society’s Family Services Fortune News issue below.

Categories: Community, Featured

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