By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
Clinging to a chain link fence, Kayla waited impatiently to visit her father in prison asking, “Is it time yet? I want my Daddy.”
The 5-year-old was eager to show her father a kindergarten certificate she received in school and to give him a picture she drew.
“I’m my Daddy’s princess,” she boasted, as she showed her picture to another visitor. “He calls me princess and says when I grow up, I’ll become a queen like mommy.”
Although Kayla’s father is currently serving a 3-year sentence for felonious assault with a weapon, he doesn’t allow his incarceration to hinder his parental responsibilities.
“I don’t want my daughter to be disrespected by anyone - especially a man,” he said in a telephone interview. “My absence from home doesn’t mean I’m absent from her life. I’m still very much involved in her training and discipline. She knows that Daddy did wrong and must be punished. But, she also knows that Daddy loves her and will make sure she’s well taken care of.”
Like Kayla, there are 2.7 million children with a parent in jail with fathers making up 92 percent of those incarcerated.
The National Fatherhood Initiative reports that children living in father absent homes fair badly. They note how they are four times more likely to experience poverty, behavioral problems, abuse drugs, become obese, drop out of school and become a teen parent.
However, programs such as the InsideOut Dad and Son to a Father disagree and are helping fathers to develop better relationships with their children behind bars.
"We wanted to create a curriculum that spoke to relationships of fathers and their children," said Cole Williams,founder of Son to a Father. “Fathers are super heroes; they just don't know that they are."
Offered in over 400 prisons throughout the country, InsideOut Dad is making better fathers out of inmates. Participants are reconnecting with their families and children, setting realistic goals for re-entry into the community, and reducing recidivism rates.
“I learned how to communicate better with my child’s mother,” said Anthony Reynolds. “Better communication with my son’s mother has drawn me closer to my son. I now realize that he looks up to me, so I have to lead him down the right path. I don’t want him to end up where I am. We talk every week, and he visits me regularly. He’s given me a new focus in life, and I want to do better.”
Both organizations say that giving incarcerated fathers a new vision and connecting them to their children benefit all parties involved.
"There's this huge perception that African American males are not present, are not involved. We are absent," added Williams. "Having my son come in was super important because he would be a living testament to one, our bond, but two, a living example they could have, too."
Williams’ son said that working beside his father in prisons has helped him as well.
"It's really shaped me and molded me into the person I am today to be able to come in here to speak to these men in prison," said Nate Williams. "I hope to be an example for the men in here that they can work with their sons and daughters and hopefully take parenting and fathering so serious that they never want to come here again."
While Kayla’s dad didn’t rely on any program to draw him closer to his daughter, he agrees that parental involvement is key to his daughter’s success.
“I talk to my daughter regularly on the phone and write her a letter each day,” he added. “There are no bars that can break or separate me from the love I have for my daughter. These bars don’t stop me from teaching her how a man is supposed to treat a woman. Today she’s my princess, but one day she’ll be someone’s queen. And, he better treat her like royalty.”