On Father's Day dads get to feel proud of their role raising the next generation. Being a father is a challenge under any circumstances, but for those returning to their families after serving prison terms, becoming an active and positive part of their children's lives can be especially tough.
CEO Works, a non-profit agency in New York City is dedicated to helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society. To an outsider, the dimly lit conference room where they hold their weekly Fatherhood Values class and discussion group might seem a grim setting. Still, the absence of armed prison guards and window bars makes the room seem almost cheerful to the half dozen men in attendance.
After the social worker teaching the class asks them what the phrase "family values" means to them, Keith Byrd, a father of five children by five different women, grimaces.
"I don't have two kids with one person, so I never practiced (family values)," he says. "I don't know if I could be the big blue collar worker or whatever coming home, and my kids got their homework done and so forth and they start their chores and so forth. So I have no real idea what I would really want out of a family. So family values for me is just up in the air right now."
Many in this class grew up in fatherless homes, or in homes where anger and hostility were the everyday norms. "I can't say 'happy fathers day' to my father. My father he did some real cruel things," says Charles Bunn, who was just released on parole. "He taught us nothing but hatred, how to hate. Today my dad is in a wheelchair, and we look at him but do we have any pity for him? No we don't. He destroyed everything for us, but we love him because he's our father." Bunn says he would like to be "more loving, more caring" as a father.
Timothy Hawthorne says that his father also taught him how not to be with his own teenage son. "My father, he never wanted to know anything. So I ask my son everything I can think of. Even though I don't live with him, I still call him and I ask him what's going on," he says. "I got to let him know I am around. I'm gonna be there with whatever he needs. Help with homework, know what I mean? I need to ask him questions."
Hawthorne says he is learning that being a good dad often means knowing how to negotiate effectively, and letting his son know that he has to earn some things by doing well in school. "Like if he wants sneakers, I say 'I want B averages at least. Give me B averages and you got the sneakers,'" he says. "'I got to work for what I need and you have to work for what you need.' So that's how we work it out."
Across the table, another young ex-convict nods in appreciation of what his friend has just said. "I don't try to beat up on my daughter and curse," he says. "I try to talk to them in a positive way. That's what you gotta do."
"I try to instill values in my kids… and I do it in a fun way," says Darren Johnson, who met his father on his deathbed, before being sent to prison for many years. Still, he recalls the values he saw his uncles instill in their own kids.
"What you do is find out what your child likes to do and incorporate it in the lessons you teach your child. And once the bond is placed there, now you got some focus and intention and you are able to explain to him what's right and what's wrong and the consequences of things."
Johnson adds that serving time in prison for a crime he committed teaches his kids honesty and responsibility. "You have to tell them, 'Listen, I made a mistake... and through that mistake, I've learned,'" he says. "And don't tell them no fairy tale. You would want to hear the truth. Why not give them the truth? No matter what the question is, answer them."
When Timothy Hawthorne was freed from prison, and learned that his 13-year-old son was already acting out in ways that could lead him to prison some day, here's what he told him:
"You know how it feels when I was away from you? You know how it felt when you wanted to talk to me and you couldn't? Well if you do these things you are going to jail, this is how your child is gonna feel. This is how the people that love you are gonna feel. You don't want to go through that, son. I did that for you already."
That kind of honesty can be difficult to express. It's an emotion Kevin Byrd, the father of five used to run away from. Now, he's got a different strategy. "'Bring it on!' I'm learning that now. That's how I'm taking it now with my kids," Hawthorne says. "And I tell them straight 'I will get better at this.' I'm more calm now. I am more patient now. I am committed. You're still my child. You can sit here and cry and I'm gonna sit here and hold you.'"
CEO Works agency in New York helps Hawthorne and other ex-convicts make that commitment to their children to be responsible fathers.