In December 2016, a group of 11 fathers spent a few hours with their 18 kids. In preparation for the event, the fathers made cards and memory boxes for their kids, picked out books to read and give to their children and prepared songs to sing as a group. These fathers were part of a class of dads participating in a special "Dads and Kids" initiative at the Cybulski Reintegration Center in Enfield. In 2015, the Connecticut Department of Correction invited the Judy Dworin Performance Project (JDPP) to bring a family-building initiative to Cybulski Reintegration Center for fathers soon returning to the community. As part of the initiative, a special visit was organized where the fathers could freely engage with their children in arts activities. They shared a meal, including ice cream for desert. The men and children, ranging in ages from 3 to 17, were joined by other family members. This modest visit had a powerful impact on the men who for that brief period of time could again feel the bond of a father interacting with their child.
Comments from the fathers participating in the family visit describe the experience:
"I am on top of the world. It was amazing to be a dad again – wipe her fingers from the ice cream, clean her face. At first she was shy but once I started doing things we used to do she was like, yeah! We played tic tac toe and she said 'Let Daddy win.'"
"I was glad my family came at last. You guys have no idea how moving it was to witness your children's excitement when they came in the door. There is no word to describe or feeling to express how it is to see your children jump into our arms."
The Judy Dworin Performance Project, with partner agency Families in Crisis and the Department of Correction, developed its Dads and Kids curriculum. Dads and Kids is an expansion of the successful JDPP Bridging Boundaries multi-arts performance program, first implemented in 2005 for women at the York Correctional Institution. The Dads and Kids program includes multiple forms of artistic expression and three family visits each year, the heart of the program that the dads and their children look forward to. The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving is one of several local and national sponsors of the Judy Dworin Performance Project, Bridging Boundaries, and Dads and Kids.
The fathers meet a number of criteria before joining the Dads and Kids program, such as adhering to behavioral requirements of the facility and being open to an arts engagement, designed to help them examine their experiences, the lives they want for their children, and their roles as fathers. The program supports fathers at the Cybulski Reintegration Center as they work on building self-awareness and forming strong family bonds. Over the course of the program's first eight weeks, the fathers work together to explore writing, visual art and movement techniques to tap into their own sense of themselves when they were young and helping them connect with their children during the highly anticipated family visits. This was clearly in evidence based on comments offered by many of the fathers in the program.
"I was excited—didn't think my kids would do anything and they did! They wanted to know when the next visit would be and they said they're coming. It was the best day I ever had since I've been incarcerated. My stepson was happy and all up on me. They asked, "Why don't they all (visits)be like this?"
"When I was home I was reading to him and now he reads to me. I can't wait to go home and buy a bunch of books."
"By all accounts, the visit was a joyous experience for all," said Judy Dworin, Executive and Artistic Director at the Judy Dworin Performance Project. "Beyond the music and movement, there was also time for honest conversations between families. Giving fathers the opportunity to reconnect with their families is a critical factor in their desire to reconstruct their lives on stronger and more positive footing. This serves as a real deterrent to coming back to prison and an incentive for making better choices for themselves and their families upon their return to the community."
The City of Hartford has estimated more than 1,000 of its children – or roughly one in six – have an incarcerated father. According to research conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, having a parent in prison can have negative consequences for a child, such as a lower grade point average; suspension, expulsion or dropping out of school; and developing learning disabilities or mental health issues.
At the same time, research has found that maintaining family contact during periods of forced separation (such as incarceration) supports the child, the parent and the family. The U.S. Department of Justice has reported that reentry support programs, begun during incarceration and continuing after release, can strengthen family ties and can be effective strategies to prevent repeat offenses.
The success and unique approach of Bridging Boundaries has attracted attention from state officials and local media, with a Connecticut Public Broadcasting documentary slated for the fall of 2017.
"Judy Dworin has a longstanding reputation as a passionate champion for bringing the performing arts to prison populations and maintaining a connection with participants as they transition to the community," said Commissioner Scott Semple. "The opportunity to partner with Judy on a documentary film was simply an easy decision to make."
The Dads and Kids program is continuing in 2017, with two more family visits planned before this year's session concludes in May.
"This is a great example of how communities can support moms and dads in prison and their families to maintain ties that are critical during and after incarceration. It's a community effort, working with nonprofit organizations, Department of Correction staff and leadership, to help strengthen family bonds so critical to their children and families and vitality of our communities," said Judy McBride, Senior Community Investments Officer at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. "The Judy Dworin Performance Project team has developed a powerful, creative program to reach men as fathers and women as mothers, going beyond the statistics. This is not about who they were or what they did, but rather who they are and who they are becoming to allow them to continue to play a meaningful role in the lives of their children and families."
The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving is the community foundation for Hartford and 28 surrounding communities. In 2015, the Foundation celebrated ninety years of grantmaking in the Greater Hartford region, made possible by the gifts of generous individuals, families and organizations. It has awarded grants of more than $700 million since its founding in 1925. For more information about the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, visit www.hfpg.org or call 860-548-1888.