One father said he had never learned to hug his 14-year-old daughter because he always had a gun in his belt. After his visit with her, and their first hug, he felt like he was in heaven. Another father told the group that the visit was the first time he had ever held his seven-month-old son. A third father was visited by his three children and told his five-year-old son to take care of the two younger children. He heard later, from the son’s mother, that he was helping out more around the house.
These reports are from fathers, detained in a Baltimore federal holding facility, who have just had a contact visit with their children. They have attended fathering groups I have been co-leading since 2011 at the facility, a former maximum security prison. Many federal facilities have visitation rooms, often cafeterias or gymnasiums, where visitations take place and parents can hug their children. This uniquely designed facility only has a few very small “lawyer” rooms where pre-trial preparation occurs. In order for the fathers to have a contact visit (visits usually occur with a glass wall between parent and child), they have to complete the four week fathering group.
Over 300 fathers have come through the group. They have ranged in age from early 20s to late 50s and represent all the races on the earth. Some have fathered one young baby; others multiple children from different mothers. A few are grandfathers. What they have in common is their desire for a contact visit with their children, by far the most significant reason for coming to the group, and their desire to learn more about how to father.
After the fathers complete the third week, they can schedule a visit and then report about the experience at the fourth and final session. Many of the fathers should be in a year- long group but running such a lengthy enterprise would preclude other fathers from being served and getting visitation.
At yesterday’s group, the fourth session, one father said that seeing and holding his children was a deterrent to committing crimes – it made him want to stay in the community and be with his children when he was released. Other fathers talked about how emotional for their children and for them the visits were. Children were crying and clinging to dads when their time was up and they had to leave. Fathers said they had to put back on their mask before returning to their pod, a reference to not being able to look weak in front of other men.
Our position as group leaders is that fathers should stay in contact with their children no matter where they are. For the few hours that they attend group, they are no longer just detainees with a federal number – they are fathers. Father’s Day comes once a year but we are hoping the chance to talk with other fathers in a group setting, to exchange ideas about how to father while being incarcerated, and to talk about feelings of loss will push the dads to embrace the fathering role to its fullest capacity every day.