‘They’re still dads’ — program teaches parenting skills to serving inmates to help them reconnect with their families

Dad HERO program also helps prevent former inmates from reoffending upon their release

Saskatchewan Penitentiary. Herald File Photo

A national not-for-profit is hoping to show dads that they can be there for their children — even from prison.

The Canadian Families and Corrections Network (CFCN) is running a program called Dad HERO (Helping Everyone Realize Opportunities) at federal prisons across Canada, including at Saskatchewan Penitentiary.

Locally, the program is offered by Parkland Restorative Justice. It seeks to teach serving inmates parenting skills to improve their connection with their families and decrease the risk of re-offending once they’ve been released from prison.

Dad HERO is the only parenting course in the country that has been developed for incarcerated dads. It has been acknowledged as a best practice by Canada’s Office of the Correctional Investigator.

Dad HERO consists of eight-week parenting courses, a prison dad group and a follow-up dad group in high prison community release sites, including in Prince Albert. The pilot program began in September 2017.  It’s currently running in five federal facilities and one provincial jail in Ontario.

CFCN approached the project as a way to cut down on suicides within the prison and improve the home life of families with a loved one behind bars.

“That’s what our organization does,” executive director Louise Leonardi said. “We’re the only organization across Canada that looks after families and children of those incarcerated.”

Research shows that keeping families connected is better for both those inside and their families outside, Leonardi said.

“These men and women are less likely to re-offend if they have a positive support network,” she said.

“It’s better for me, you and everybody else in terms of public safety.”

It’s also better for the kids. Kids with parents in prison are two to four times more likely to offend themselves, Leonardi said. They approached serving prisoners with families on the outside and asked what they needed.

“They said, ‘we want parenting. We really care about our kids. We don’t want them to follow in our footsteps’.”

CFCN started looking for a program to implement. They couldn’t find one specifically for prison, so they used their research to develop their own. They received funding from the Movember Foundation shared their funding and curriculum with partners like the John Howard Society and Parkland Restorative Justice.

“A lot of time when we send someone to jail, people think we should just lock them up and throw away the key,” Leonardi said.

“But what they don’t realize is there are a family and children on the outside, and those kids need their dads. Here we are with father’s day coming up and the dads are trying to improve themselves. They’re really motivated by their children. So they’re getting some of that experience and conversation they’ve never had about what is a good dad, and what does that mean. They say to us, ‘we want to break to the chain. We don’t want our kids in here with us.’”

It’s a chance, Leonardi said, to break that cycle and keep the next generation out of the justice system.

In Prince Albert, it’s Scott Manly who’s helping the inmates learn what it takes to be a good dad. He’s the group facilitator for the Dad HERO program and a local pastor.

“Research is showing that one of the biggest, strongest factors in the successful reintegration of inmates is strong family connections,” he said.

“We’re trying to build upon those family connections with the men and give them some parenting skills. It’s one thing to think about getting out for the sake of your parents or siblings, but I’ve noticed the guys seem really motivated on the basis of their children. They want to be a hero to their children. Where they are, they don’t always feel that way.”

Manly said the course touches on topics such as parenting styles, communication skills and how to connect with children at different stages of their development.

 “Seventy-five per cent of what you learn is modelling,” Leonardi said.

“If you don’t have a good dad, you don’t understand what a good dad is.”

Some of the lesson plans in the program deal with parenting styles. The inmates have a sheet of various attributes, including things they saw growing up. Manly said the inmates circle the ones that were part of their life, and cross out the ones they don’t want to be part of their story anymore.

“They consciously say, ‘these were things that were a part of my past and what I knew growing up. I can make some decisions to change that and not let it be part of it anymore’.”

Another topic the program deals with is reconciliation, both with victims of crime and with the family of the perpetrator. Manly described it as inmates coming clean with their families.

“Just get it out on the table. Acknowledge the elephant in the room, find some healing and move on,” he said.

“We’re wanting to try and build those family relations so they can have the support of their family and the motivation of their family.”

The work starts right from prison. The inmates learn how to reconnect with their family through correspondence, phone calls or visits. They begin the journey to reconnect with their children from inside the prison walls.

“They’re still a dad. Even though they’re in prison, they’re still their kid’s dad and will always be their kid’s dad,” Manly said.

“I can capitalize on that and teach them, from my own experience, ways in which parenting their own children can provide an avenue for healing for the things they’ve missed out on or the things that were right in their own upbringing, just to provide some healing so they can move on and live a reformed and normal life from there on.”

So far, the program has been well-received and has started to see some initial success.

Manly hasn’t seen much of it — he’s relatively new to facilitating the program — but he has started to hear of and see some difference.

“I do know of one person whose interactions with his adult children has brought some healing to that relationship,” he said. “That healing is spreading to other family members as well. That’s been encouraging to see.”

Leonardi, on the other hand, has seen and heard success stories from across the country.

Participants have said it should be mandatory, or that they wish they could have taken the course years ago, she said.

“The men really enjoy the program and have better communication with their children. They understand that even from prison, research shows dads play a pivotal role,” she said.

“It’s very, very positive. Correctional Services Canada is pleased with it, the correctional investigator, the men are happy, we are happy because we’re helping more men build resiliency and come home to their family without suicide in prison. They can look after their families and hopefully stay out of prison because of this.”

Manly said that it’s important for people to remember that yes, these people were sent to prison and part of that sentence is to bring safety to victims and to denounce the crime, but that some form of restoration should still happen so that when inmates are released, they don’t go right back to offending and ending up in prisons again.

“It’s been fun to talk with these guys about healing and some of the potential healing,” Manly said.

“I shared with them the first day that I grew up with an alcoholic dad who sobered up when I was in grade school. He’s been sober for 35years now.

“I tell these guys up front: you may not feel like a hero where you are, but it’s not where you start off, it’s where you end up that counts. You can make some choices today to become a hero to your kids and to be there for them — even in prison.”