Breaking the absentee fatherhood cycle: Initiative in Virginia aims to strengthen families
Locked behind steel bars painted baby blue, men dressed in government-issued jumpsuits and sandals sit together and explore their deep feelings on fatherhood – the relationships they have had with their own fathers and those they have with their own children.
The Richmond City Jail may seem like an unusual setting for men to voluntarily divulge their vulnerabilities, but the group sessions seem to be working. Travis Johnson, 29, incarcerated for breaking and entering, has come to realize that he headed down the same destructive path as his father and as a result became less of a dad to his 4-year-old and 4-month-old girls.
“My girls see me as a superhero, and look at me – here I am in jail,” Johnson said. “Not being able to be a good father to my daughters has been very stressful on me – and on them. I want to be there for them. I want to spend time with them, encourage them and motivate them. My biggest fear right now is them walking in my footsteps like I did in my father’s. Our children, you know, they imitate us.”
The jail program is one of many offered through the Richmond Family & Fatherhood Initiative, a community collaboration designed to encourage greater responsibility among fathers and reduce unmarried births. By addressing the bonds between father and child, the initiative aims to strengthen Richmond families so that they can raise their children safely and successfully, thereby reducing the need for foster care. In addition to working with fathers, the initiative focuses on teenage boys – including many who grew up without the loving guidance of strong fathers – in hopes of breaking the cycle of father absence.
Evidence is overwhelming that children have a better chance of growing up safe, healthy and successful if their fathers are present and actively involved in their lives. In Virginia, seven of every 10 children brought into foster care in 2010 came from homes where the biological father was not present.