Prison program offers incarcerated dads valuable lessons on bonding with their kids

By Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

A father of four says it wasn’t until he went to prison that he became a consistent presence in his kids’ lives.

While he always loved his kids and wanted to provide for them, he said his approach to fatherhood transformed during his five-and-a-half years behind bars for drug-related crimes.

“I tried to give (my kids) a life I never had, but in doing so I neglected so many other things,” the man said in a recent phone interview. The Canadian Press is not identifying him because he fears reprisal from his former associates.

“I started to ask myself: do I want them to remember me for what I bought for them, not what I taught them?” he said.

He’s one of nearly 1,000 incarcerated men who’ve since 2017 gone through the Dad HERO program in Canada, which over the course of eight weeks imparts lessons about how to be a positive presence in their children’s lives, both while in prison and when they’re out.

The man, now in his mid-30s, said he was only able to start connecting with his kids after he learned more about himself. He got in touch with his Mi’kmaq heritage and spirituality. He came to terms with the tragedies in his life – the alcohol and drug addiction that were pervasive in his childhood home, the death of his brother and a cousin – and recognized the mistakes he made in the aftermath.

“I acknowledged and I took ownership for the things that I did,” he said.

That helped him figure out how to relate to his kids, who were dealing with their own hardships in no small part because of his incarceration.

They told him that he had chosen to deal drugs instead of spending time with them – that even before he was incarcerated, he was away for long stretches at a time. He stopped making excuses and let them be mad at him, he said.

“I started to talk to them and relate to them about the things that they were doing and the reason why they were acting out and stuff like that, and letting them know that I was just a soft ear, that they could talk to me. I wasn’t there to get mad at them.”

He’d already started doing some of that work with his older three kids, who are now teenagers, when he signed up for Dad HERO.

But his relationship with his younger child’s mother was strained, and that made it hard for him to father his son. He’d heard that one of the pillars of the program, which is administered by the Canadian Families and Corrections Network and funded entirely by men’s health charity Movember, centred on learning how to co-parent.

He learned how to communicate not only with his son’s mother, but also with his boy.

“It was important for me to find out ways to build our bond because I didn’t have such a close relationship with him,” the man said. “Even just things like, don’t ask questions with one-word answers. Tell me three of your favourite foods, and three things you like about those foods. Then it becomes more of a conversation.”

Now out of prison, the man said he’s proud of how far he’s come. Though some of his kids live far away, they have a group chat where they’re in daily contact.

Louise Leonardi, executive director of CFCN, said men had been asking her organization for parenting help for years before they were able to get the funding for Dad HERO, which stands for Helping Everyone Realize Opportunities.

The men who had been requesting the program asked not only for parenting tips, but also for information about child development, advice on communicating with co-parents and ways to talk to kids about incarceration. 

“As one fellow said to us, kids just need you to be there,” Leonardi said. “I think that stands for everyone. But from prison, that means you stay in regular communication, whether it’s over the phone or writing letters or having visits if you’re allowed. It’s just important to keep that bond of communication all of the time.” 

The program is currently running in 26 sites, with separate locations for the different security levels of some institutions.

Leonardi said the effects of the program go beyond just the relationship between dads and their kids – it helps set the dads up for success in other spheres as well.

“In prison it’s so isolating, so depressing,” Leonardi said. “The emotional take on a person is very, very hard. So in terms of mental health, building resilience, keeping them strong so when they get out they can do better, they can be with their families.” 

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