He was placed into foster care before age 2. At 16, he was sentenced as an adult. At 30, he was released on parole. Soon after his release he fathered a child.
“If you can imagine having an early childhood like he had, and then being incarcerated for as many years as he’d been alive, only to come out of the system as an adult, on parole, and to be put in the community and expected to thrive — it’s incredibly challenging,” said Bryan Geyer, a social worker in the fatherhood program at the Madonna Place in Norwich, tracing the case history of one recent participant.
“This is a dad who experienced incredible adversity his entire life and now has the opportunity to be a father — and wants nothing more than to be a father — and his child has been taken out of his care really due to no fault of his own,” said Geyer.
Men who have spent a lifetime in and out of the foster care system and the court system often do not feel comfortable working with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF), explained Jason Malcolm, the coordinator of fatherhood programming at Madonna Place.
“They need support, connections, a positive relationship, a role model,” Geyer said. “They need help translating difficult language and circumstances into something they can understand and act on.”
For almost a decade, Madonna Place has worked with DCF on the Fatherhood Initiative Program for eastern Connecticut — including Windham, New London, Tolland and Middlesex counties — aimed at fathers who have been separated from their children.
Last year, a $900,000 grant from DCF shared between six organizations, including Madonna Place, made it possible to intensify the program.
“This is a much more stepped up program with more resources and much more individualized work,” said Nany Gentes, the executive director of Madonna Place. “It’s really helping the dads who wanted nothing to do with DCF services to work with and engage with the department.”
With the help of the grant, Madonna Place hired three case workers, and has been able to help 12 fathers at a time communicate more effectively with DCF, understand what they need to do to satisfy the DCF and teach life skills necessary for fatherhood.
Communication is the greatest problem between fathers and DCF and that’s where Geyer says he can most help his clients.
“For dads separated from their children every day is a crisis and every day feels like a year,” Geyer said. “If you feel ignored you will stop engaging, that’s where we can help to give them the perspective and explain what’s going on, on DCFs end.”
DCF workers with dozens of cases can lead these fathers to feel like they’ve been forgotten.
And what fathers learn through individual work and group classes really does make a difference in the court room.
“The courts don’t always work in the person’s favor, but this program gives us hope. They assist us in court, they stand behind us and they believe in us as dads,” said Linwood Oates, a father from New London who voluntarily attended the programming at Madonna Place. “I’ve learned communication. I don’t have a problem speaking to anybody, but they have assisted me with the deliverance and the listening part on my behalf.”
Oates was in the middle of a custody battle when he first went to Madonna Place. Today he communicates better with the mother of his children, and is able to see his children nearly every day.
So far Madonna Place has worked with 40 fathers. And each father has received individual attention from caseworkers for up to six months through the grant program. According to Malcolm, this attention has helped many to successfully regain custody or visitation rights.
Balancing a system geared toward women
Gentes pointed out this program just barely makes a dent in the inequality of programming geared toward mothers not fathers.
“Instead of six months, mothers can receive up to six years of individual attention all for free,” Gentes said. “The reason we are providing services uniquely for fathers is because they have been overlooked for a long time. Fathers have struggled with system bias through many of the systems they’ve had to deal with whether it was the child support system or the court system.”
At one time, Gentes said, the phrase “dead beat dad” was common place in the child support and court system. Now, Madonna Place and others are trying to change that terminology to “dead broke dad.”
“In 1991 when I started at Madonna Place the whole system was just focused on children and mothers, the whole setup was not even to look at fathers. If you were caught with the father in the home and you didn’t report his income you would be thrown off welfare,” Gentes said. “There was nothing to encourage the father being involved. It was all, let’s help the poor mom and child and the heck with the father.”
Programs like this one are helping to re-right that wrong, Gentes said, and hopefully will continue to be funded.
“We need to be helping fathers, because we know when the dad is involved the outcomes are better for the child, the dad, the family and the community.”