These Approaches Help Young Fathers Leaving the Criminal Justice System

Becoming a father for the first time can be difficult for anyone, but when you do so in your teens or early 20s and have been incarcerated, it can be overwhelming. The right supports — stable housing, reliable networks, ties to employment, knowing how to build skills in fatherhood and healthy relationships — are essential.

This was certainly true for 22-year-old James* and 20-year-old Marcus*. Both became fathers before their incarceration; both wanted to be the best dads they could be, and both needed help upon release to do so.

After being released from prison, James joined the T.O.R.I. Program, which offered family reunification classes and employment support. During the 12-month program he learned new skills to provide for and nurture his daughter, like how to appropriately resolve conflict and effectively co-parent.

Marcus enrolled in the RIDGE Project while in prison, which offered training to help build character, leadership and job preparedness skills. Upon release, he continued to work with his caseworker to complete job applications and prepare for interviews. Within weeks, he found a job and an apartment.  

T.O.R.I and RIDGE are both faith-based reentry programs funded by federal, state, local and private funds. Each helps young fathers build their parenting and relationships skills, find employment and change the course of their lives. T.O.R.I. was founded in Texas in 2005 to provide holistic wraparound services for men and women after incarceration. Since its inception, T.O.R.I. has provided assistance in getting housing, employment, education and health care, among other services, to more than 10,000 fathers and mothers.

The RIDGE Project, with offices throughout Ohio, was co-founded by Ron Tijerina following his own experience as an incarcerated father. RIDGE provides classes on fatherhood, leadership, healthy relationships and job preparedness inside prisons. It also provide referrals for housing, mental health and addiction recovery upon release. RIDGE has served more than 14,000 individuals since its inception in 2000.

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funded 103 fatherhood grants, nine of which have focused on reentering fathers. Additionally, since 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice has funded 16 fatherhood/reentry grants. These investments come at a time where more than 5 million children (7 percent of all children under 18) live with a parent who went to jail or prison. And about 92 percent of all incarcerated parents are fathers; some estimate that as many as 30 percent of incarcerated teen males are also fathers.  

As many state and federal programs continue to strategically invest in employment and parenting supports for returning young fathers, promising approaches have begun to emerge. The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse has developed resources for human service professionals who support fathers and families, including those impacted by incarceration. Their Responsible Fatherhood Toolkit, which includes modules on working with incarcerated and returning fathers, suggests that service providers:

  • Offer pre-release assistance with child support, education and job training to prepare dads for reentry.
  • Encourage dads to write letters to their children on a regular basis, create books or art for their children, and read a book to their child, either over the phone or via audio or video recording.
  • Show fathers the value in developing a working relationship with their child’s mother and provide them with skills to improve this relationship.
  • Connect with the mother and family before a father’s release.
  • Provide relationship skills classes for couples when possible, and link fathers to community services upon release.
  • Develop relationships with local employers to help dads with employment opportunities.
  • Counsel men to be upfront with potential employers about their criminal record.

Programs like RIDGE and T.O.R.I. are providing important support services to young fathers and their children — to help break the cycle of generational incarceration. They provide parenting and healthy relationships skills training, job readiness and placement support, mentoring and case management to maintain communication channels within families during incarceration and grow them upon release.  

*Names changed

Eugene Schneeberg, is a senior fatherhood & families technical specialist at ICF, where he works on technical assistance and outreach activities related to Responsible Fatherhood, Prisoner Reentry and workforce programs. He is the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

An Inside Look at Reporting Abuse

Emergency vehicles appeared again this week at the door of a family we know. It’s such a common occurrence that the family greets the firemen by first names.  After hearing about the latest event, I was sorely tempted to call the state of Georgia’s office of child protective services to check out what actually goes on behind closed doors.  Maybe they’ll find concerns, but maybe not. There are a couple of reasons why I hesitate.

First, I was a foster parent for more than two years for some girls that had been involved in an abuse/neglect case. The girls’ parents were sent to jail for a drug offense and the children spent six to eight years as wards of the state of Illinois. As I’ve written before the state makes a terrible parent.

Second, I was a licensed day care provider for more than 10 years in Wheaton, Ill. I had the licensed limit of eight children under the age of 12 that I cared for each day, some before and after school. I took great pains to have a healthy, nurturing environment. I attended provider professional development classes, followed federal nutritional guidelines serving only hot breakfast and lunch, and I cared a lot for the kids.

That’s why I was beyond shocked when I opened my front door one August morning to find a badge shoved under my nose by a child protection agent. He politely asked to come into my home and sat down to “interview” me about a child abuse charge that had been made against me. As I was interviewed, it occurred to me what had actually happened. In the spring, I helped a friend out by taking in a 10-year-old for a before-school slot. I didn’t want to take in an unknown child and parent duo, but she vouched for the family. So, I took in “Johnny.”

My normal schedule began early, usually before 7:00 a.m. The first hour was spent taking care of breakfast. The second hour was reserved for a pre-school curriculum I taught. This last week of school included a lot of fun projects including one the kids really loved – involving popcorn, food coloring and sticky marshmallow fluff. Using their creativity, the kids came up with some pretty wild popcorn creations to add to our “Zoo.” Just before this activity, but after everyone had finished breakfast, Johnny was dropped off at my front door by his mom, who worked at the local high school.

Johnny joined in the activities and made a popcorn elephant, along with the other critters that were soon drying. I cleaned everyone up and soon we were on the way to walk to school.

The “child abuse and neglect” charge stated that I served kids popcorn for breakfast. On the surface it sounds terrible. When I informed the officer that the “child” in question was 10 years old (not the 2-year-old he expected), he realized that the “child” who had been dropped off for day care was perfectly capable of asking for a breakfast. He left and said that I’d be receiving a letter detailing the conclusion of his investigation.

I was horribly upset for the next few weeks, considering that this letter and this charge would also be a permanent part of my record as a licensed child-care provider. I seriously considered closing down my day care home, because I already was taking such a risk. I had to pay premiums on a $1,000,000 insurance policy to protect myself in case of any injury or death of a child while in my care.

Despite the fact that this incident was years ago, I’ve never forgotten feelings associated with this abuse/neglect report. Many others have experienced the same thing. According to Child Help in American there are child abuse reports made every 10 seconds. There are such long-term consequences to child abuse that many find themselves as members of the juvenile justice system and later, residents of adult prisons.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Children who experience child abuse & neglect are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28 percent more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30 percent more likely to commit violent crime.”

The good news, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, is that half of the states reported fewer cases of child abuse in 2010 than 2009. However, the number of children found to have actually suffered abuse or neglect at the hands of a parent or caregiver were still staggering – 695,000 children according to the Child Maltreatment 2010 report. Eighty one percent of the abusers of children were parents, either birth, adoptive or stepparents.

So what’s an outside observer to look for to understand the real signs of abuse or neglect? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fact sheet, watch for these signs:

An abused or neglected child will:

  • • Show sudden changes in school performance or behavior.
  • • Have a medical issue that wasn’t brought to the attention of a medical professional.
  • • Lack adult supervision.
  • • Be overly compliant, passive or withdrawn.
  • • Come to school or other activities early, stay late and not want to go home.
  • • Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes.
  • • Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school.
  • • Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home.
  • • Shrinks at the approach of adults.
  • • Is frequently absent from school.
  • • Begs or steals food or money.
  • • Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses.
  • • Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor.
  • • Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather.
  • • States that there is no one at home to provide care.

An abusive parent will:

  • • Show a lack of concern for the child
  • • Deny the existence of—or blame the child for—the child's problems in school or at home
  • • Ask teachers or other caregivers to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves
  • • See the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome

Some people are in positions of Mandatory Reporters of suspected child abuse. They are:

  • Social workers
  • Teachers and other school personnel
  • Physicians and other health-care workers
  • Mental health professionals
  • Child care providers
  • Medical examiners or coroners
  • Law enforcement officers

Let’s hope you’re never in a position to report suspected child abuse or neglect. When in doubt, report. If you do, you may be the only adult in the life of a child who cares enough to make a difference.


Free Recovery Month PSA

September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. If your organization is planning events and you want to publicize them, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a deal for you.  A free public service announcement, made for TV, comes in two versions. The generic PSA introduces Recovery Month and encourages people to visit the Recovery Month Web site and find a Recovery Month event in their area. The second PSA is customizable so that organizations can add in their local Recovery Month event information.  The Recovery Month website has helpful information about how to get a copy of the PSA, how to contact TV stations and cable companies, and how to get free air time.