Sunday September 11, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- The Berkshire County Sheriff's Office has signed on to a national program aimed at improving relationships and communications skills between fathers and at-risk children.

The "24-7 Dad" program was originated by the National Fatherhood Initiative of Germantown, Pa., a nonprofit advocacy group founded in 1994 to engage fathers living apart from their families in the lives of their children.

According to the organization, the absence of fathers is a "pervasive, destructive issue strongly linked to poverty, teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, abuse and suicide."

The local program, coordinated by Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction Superintendent John J. Quinn and Classification Department staffer Frank Busener, already has enrolled 11 fathers for a voluntary, three-month, one-hour a week workshop that begins this Wednesday at the George B. Crane Memorial Center on Linden Street.

"A lot of things we've been doing over the years haven't been working," said Busener, "so we began to see what we need to change by looking at issues in the community. Some of the population we deal with are fathers who don't take care of their children. We'll be teaching them some skills that maybe they were never taught before."

"When we think about how many children are out there in the community without parents," Busener added, "we often wonder who's teaching those kids today if their fathers aren't there and the effect it has on the children on substance abuse, poverty and mental-health issues. So, if we begin to offer some solutions, maybe we'll see some change in our community."

The series of workshops is aimed at fathers in the outside community throughout Berkshire County, not at the jail, although some participants may be former inmates, Busener explained.

"We're trying to give them some skills on how to be responsible parents," he said.

Sheriff Thomas N. Bowler views the workshops as a program to prevent children at risk from falling into criminal activity or drug abuse "from this way of life."

"Look at the number of incarcerated fathers who would love to sit back and say, ‘I wish my life was totally different, I wish I didn't do the things I did as a youngster because I had no direction,' " said Bowler. "They would love not to be here. If they can turn that around and learn the skills and tools they need to keep their children from this type of life, it's got to be a very positive thing."

The sheriff's department recruited the volunteers by working with five other social-service agencies and putting up posters.

"We want to get this up and running," said Bowler, comparing it to a pilot program. "From there, we'll go back and assess how the first 12-week curriculum went and then see how many groups we can run at one time if we have more referrals."

The curriculum includes self-understanding, masculinity, handling emotions, spirituality, physical and mental health, fathering roles, strengthening relationships with the child's mother, discipline, punishment, and engaging with the children.

"When you become a parent, there's no real handbook, no blueprint," said Bowler. "You learn based on how you were brought up yourself. A lot of the incarcerated individuals, and even those who aren't, never had parenting or a positive influence that can filter down to them."

He said inmates have been "surrounded by such negative influences. Here's a way we can start turning that around, giving these guys positive influences. There's no doubt a lot of guys, incarcerated or not, care for their children, they just don't have the tools or the skills to teach them all the positive things that kids need.

"We're hoping we can start influencing these individuals to be better parents it's going to be a positive reinforcement for them to stay away from this place here. We're also hoping it's going to cut down the number of repeat offenders, long-term."

According to Quinn, "fathers won't go to someone to ask how to parent they just don't know where to turn, so this is a beginning. They can't just keep coming in and out of the game and expect a great outcome."

"It's sad," he added. "We see guys with their kids here on visits and they don't even know how to talk to them. The toughest part of this job is the emotional impact when you see those kids come in."

Quinn said he's often asked by fathers what to do with their kids and how to handle them. "What we're taking for granted as simple things you do as a parent is a struggle for these individuals because they've had no experience at it. We always say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, but if there's no tree to fall out of, what do you do?"