THE CATHOLIC FREE PRESS
June 15, 2019
By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
WORCESTER – Fathers matter to their children, and they affect their children’s lives.
Pernet Family Health Service tries to communicate this year-round – not just when Father’s Day rolls around. The agency, funded in part by Partners in Charity, aims to help men be better fathers.
To do this, it holds weekly, 10-session programs. One is at Worcester County House of Correction for men incarcerated there. The other, mainly for men involved with the Department of Children and Families (DCF), is at Pernet’s Millbury Street facility.
Christopher Nelson, director of Pernet’s Family Support Services, coordinates the agency’s Fathers and Family Program, which includes the 10-week sessions.
At Pernet he and Mary Jane Foley, a service coordinator for early intervention, use the Nurturing Father’s Program, a curriculum by Mark Perlman that has helped numerous fathers over the years, he said.
He said Pernet developed its own program for the House of Correction, and has been offering it at least four times a year for about 12 years as part of the facility’s Substance Abuse Treatment Opportunity Program. He and Denise Rowan, Pernet’s mental health access coordinator and a parent aide, co-facilitate one group of 10 to 14 prisoners at a time.
“It’s nice to have a female to provide a woman’s perspective,” he said. The program covers co-parenting, which the men will often need to do, as many will not be with the children’s mother after they are released.
“We provide each inmate with a journal,” Mr. Nelson said. “At the end of each class we ask them a journal question, which gets them to reflect on a subject we talked about or something we’re going to talk about. … They bring their journal to the next class. They have the opportunity to read what they wrote.”
The first goes like this: “Put yourself in your children’s shoes and write about how it feels to be away from your dad.”
“That’s pretty heavy, and often it’s emotional,” Mr. Nelson said. “When they talk about their kids, they’re vulnerable.” But having in common the fact that they’re incarcerated and away from their children helps make them willing to be open. They begin to realize the impact their criminal activity had on their children.
“When a parent goes to jail, certainly they’re punished,” Mr. Nelson said. “However, kids suffer from that.”
He said people sometimes question why Pernet encourages these men to be involved with their children. His response is, “They’re going to be released back into our community,” since they haven’t committed serious crimes. “It’s imperative that we rehabilitate them, and part of that is how they’re going to reunify with their children and their family.”
Pernet’s idea is, “it’s never too late to reunify with your kids,” under the right circumstances, he said. “It could be really important as a means of breaking a cycle, so that perhaps their children won’t make the mistakes they made.”
Mr. Nelson said he and Mrs. Rowan help connect prisoners who’ve completed the program with resources they can access after they’re released, including those offered by Pernet. He told of helping one man get forms to fill out so he could visit his child.
“To me that was like a continuation of our program,” Mr. Nelson said.
In another case, Pernet’s connections with DCF enabled him to help a man communicate with the department, he said.
“Ultimately, what I think we’re doing … we plant a seed that serves to remind them that they matter to their children and that they can and should play an important role in their children’s lives,” Mr. Nelson said.
The program stresses the importance of fathers, in part by having participants reflect on their experiences with their own fathers, he said.
“One of the most important classes we teach is about domestic violence and healthy relationships, and how these adult relationships impact children,” he said. Participants are asked, “What have your children learned about relationships from you?”
Asked if God, religion and faith are brought into the program, Mr. Nelson thought awhile, recalling that such topics have been brought up.
“I don’t know as we do it as much as … the men share it,” he said finally. It comes out when they’re talking about support “and what they need to be healthy, to feel whole.”
Some prisoners are more spiritual than others, so the co-facilitators take a fairly neutral approach, he said. But the inmates accept each other’s spiritual sharing.
“We are teaching men to be more emotionally literate … able to express their feelings as a means to communicate … and relate to others in a healthier way … most importantly to their children,” Mr. Nelson said.
He said he questions whether some of the men are emotionally ready to handle the group. But he – and they – have been surprised. He told of one who thought he wasn’t ready, but kept coming anyway and became very engaged in the program.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve … seen a father” later, from one of the groups at the prison or at Pernet, sometimes with his children, he said. “They recall the group and how helpful it was.”
The fathers have varying situations with their children’s mothers, but if they stay committed to their goal of being a consistent part of their children’s lives, it can happen, he said.
Asked if Pernet’s efforts have a broader impact, Mr. Nelson said he’d like to believe that, if they help men be better fathers and better members of society, “that’s going to have a positive impact on our community, because this person will live a responsible life.” And maybe find a way to give back.