Facilitating Fatherhood, From Brooklyn to 'Upstate'

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Thousands of families in New York City include a father who is in prison, and keeping the children connected with their dads is difficult. Bedford-Stuyvesant resident Janet Hart, for example, used to catch a bus at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning to take her grandson, Tae-Kwon, to see his father in prison in Greene County, which is a lot closer to Albany than it is to Brooklyn.

They would spend three or four hours with Le-Andre Hart – who is serving up to 18 years for assault – talking, playing games and looking at photos before heading back home, where they would arrive almost 24 hours later. The trips were costly and exhausting, and Hart made them three times a year for 10 years.

Now Hart is ill with cancer and doesn’t have the strength to make the trip with Tae-Kwon, 13, any more. She hopes that a new program called “Families, Fathers and Children” will help Tae-Kwon stay in contact with his father until he is released.

The program, headed by social worker Ellen Edelman, was launched in October at St. Teresa of Avila Church in Prospect Heights and is the only program in the city working to bring children together with their incarcerated fathers. There are programs in New York to connect children with incarcerated mothers, but services for fathers are limited, according to a representative at the Osborne Association, a local nonprofit organization specializing in prison and family services.

Other programs, like Osborne's own “Family Ties,” have parenting classes for fathers in prison and community-based services for their families. They bring kids to prisons close to the city, like Sing Sing and Rikers Island, after their fathers complete the parenting courses. But that leaves out children with fathers in more distant facilities.

Inspired by recent studies by the National Fatherhood Initiative that show how father-child closeness can help reduce risky behavior and delinquency, Edelman decided to fill the gap she saw in services for children with fathers in prison. “Families, Fathers and Children” starts with individual families, Edelman said, but in the long run she hopes society and the institution of the family will change such that the program is no longer needed. A Prospect Heights resident, she previously worked with Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens to develop state-funded outreach programs to inhibit risk behavior in adolescents.

Edelman said she is just starting to work with city and state officials to get the financial support she needs to make the prison visits a reality. City Councilwoman Letitia James, a Working Families party member who represents the area, said she backs the program because society has a responsibility to help lessen the impact imprisonment has on children of inmates. “When you incarcerate an individual, you imprison their family as well,” James said.

Stanley Richards, chief operating officer of the Fortune Society, a NYC-based prisoner reentry organization, participated in a father-child program when he was incarcerated in the late 1980s and early '90s at the Groveland facility in western New York. The program, which Richards said was developed by clergy and the Department of Correctional Services, is now defunct.

“It allowed me and my son to really bond,” Richards said. When he was released he was able to get custody of his son, who was living with an aunt in foster care. His son is now 26, married, and – according to his dad – has a great life.

Richards attributes his son’s success partially to the contact they had while he was in prison. He said that while his son went through a troubled time, being able to see his dad in prison helped him turn his life around.

Linda Foglia, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Correctional Services, said that any program that strengthens family ties has proven to be an asset to prisoners. But Edwidge Jean, a family service specialist at the Osborne Association, said that kids don’t always benefit from a visit with their parents – she has seen some prison reunions that did not go well. Whether the children benefit from visiting their parents can depend on the relationship they had before the parent was incarcerated, she said.

Children are sometimes angry with their parents for being in prison. Healing those relationships that have been ruptured because of incarceration is one of the ultimate goals of her program, Edelman said. Part of achieving that goal is modeling how traditional families function and giving kids a safe place to be themselves. Every Monday night, Edelman and volunteers from the neighborhood gather in the social hall of St. Teresa of Avila. Teenagers from the neighborhood and some who have been referred to Families, Fathers and Children by other agencies come to play games, cook, and sit down together for a meal. It is an experience few have at home, Edelman said.

Edelman wants to create a safe atmosphere where kids can be themselves and see how families traditionally sit and eat together. “If you heal one family,” Edelman said, “you are healing a larger family.”

– Elizabeth Heiselt

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