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Parenting after prison

Once a week, for eight weeks, a small group of women will gather at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women to prepare for a time when they’re reunited with their kids. Step one in the Partners in Parenting program is to better understand themselves and to boost self-esteem.

"In order to appreciate myself and have more control of my life, I have the right to: Ask for what I want, to say no and not feel guilty, to make mistakes, to express my ideas and thoughts,” reads one lesson.

Believing in themselves is essential, but many prisoners have spent years feeling guilty. Natalie Jones, for example, left her 8-month-old son with his father after she was convicted of a robbery.

“I was very suicidal. I was very depressed," she recalls. "I actually succeeded in suicide, but I was revived, so I’ve been on a bumpy road being away from him.”

When he reached school age, she could have conversations with her son, but he was sometimes rude or resentful during bi-weekly phone calls, and the young mother admits they both sounded like children at times.

“'‘You can’t talk to me like that! I’m your mom! What’s wrong with you?’" she told the boy.

"I’d argue with him, and he would say, ‘When you get out I’m going to throw doodoo on your head,’ and I said, ‘That’s fine, because I’ll throw doodoo back on your head. I don’t even care!’”

But thanks to Partners in Parenting, she has learned how to talk with her son when he’s frustrated or angry.

“I don’t really know how to handle a lot of situations, but I’m very patient with him, and I listen,” Jones says.

Being patient is important according to Ebony Whitted, a program manager for the Virginia Department of Corrections.

“We ask our parents to just listen and to sympathize with them and understand where their children are coming from,” she explains.

Counselor Natasha Winfree thinks parents who committed crimes should apologize to their kids, take responsibility for their mistakes -- then forgive themselves and move on.

“Some fathers or mothers don’t even want to be in their children’s lives, because they feel they’re an embarrassment to their children, so the first thing we often have to do is release that mindset of your child is better without you,” Winfree says.

Honesty is also key, but Whitted recalls one inmate who had been in the military before he was convicted and locked up.

“He kept telling his children that he was away because he was in the military, so the first thing we did was shut that down. We told him, ‘No, that doesn’t work, because now your children aren’t going to trust you when they find out, and they will find out!’”

Group leaders explain different stages of child development and different styles of parenting. Through discussions and role play, Winfree says they explore what it means to be a child’s parent – not their friend.

“We have parents who are more afraid to discipline their children, to correct their children, because they still have that guilt that’s associated with it, and depending on the child’s age, that child will actually throw that guilt back at them. They will say, ‘Well you were gone for two years. How do you know what I need right now?’”

Programs are open not only to parents but to other relatives who might fill the bill. Winfree still recalls one very devoted uncle.

“His sister had a child while he was incarcerated, and he was the only father figure that this child knew, and so in this case he learned the tools to figure out how to support his sister -- to be that co-parent to her, so that when he was released he actually ended up being called Daddy by this child!”

The Department of Corrections checks with inmates once they’re released to see how it’s going, and provides resources in the community. Experts estimate that one of every four incarcerated men and women has at least one child, so it’s no surprise that these programs -- Partners in Parenting and Inside Out Dads -- helped more than 200 returning Virginia inmates last year alone.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief