A powerful parenting program for young fathers detained in custody at Malmsbury Youth Justice Precinct

Parenting program

A powerful parenting program for young fathers detained in custody at Malmsbury Youth Justice Precinct3rd of June 2016

“I wish I was there the first time you opened your eyes. I wish I was there the first time you crawled. I have cleaned my past and learnt from my mistakes. We will have special times, you and me. Your first birthday is not your last. I will be there for your second. I love you,” Anonymous student.

Hi Rani. Can you tell me about how your role at Parkville College come about?

I’ve been lucky enough to work in the education industry for 10 years, predominantly in Early Childhood. In my final year of studies, I completed a thesis on ‘fathers in prison and the relationships with their children.’ During my research I came across extensive literature identifying the lack of parenting education provided to fathers in prison, especially youth prisons. I found this shocking as so much research supported the theory that when male prisoners maintain family connections while incarcerated, they are less likely to reoffend.

For years I was left considering ways to address this issue, and then in term 1 of 2015 I was employed by Parkville College to provide a parenting program for young fathers detained in custody, aligned with the school curriculum. I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to start giving young fathers a voice.

What are the objectives of the parenting program?

The overall purpose is to provide support for young fathers detained in custody. By fostering healthy relationships between families during incarceration, and giving young fathers the confidence and skills to be the best parent they can be, we hope to break the cycle of antisocial behaviour caused by experiences of trauma, neglect and abuse.

The program was created not only to provide education to young fathers at Parkville College, but also as an intervention strategy to reunite, strengthen and maintain strong family connections, and assist in students’ transitions into the community.

Classes are structured around guiding young fathers on their journey to be the best father they can be. Each class is focused on empowering fathers and giving them the right tools to one day, be a positive role model in their child’s life. My hope is for all of the young fathers in my class to understand and believe that their history doesn’t necessarily determine their child’s destiny.

What are your students like? Are they excited about being dads?

They are all beautiful, and genuinely want to be good dads. But they just need a little guidance to help them on their fatherhood journey. Many of my students are still children themselves. The youngest father I have taught was only 14 years old.

All Parkville College students have experienced trauma, and most have been neglected and abused in their young lives. Many have parents and family members that have been engaged with the criminal justice system, and come from disadvantaged or vulnerable backgrounds where they have not been privileged with a stable upbringing or a positive role model.

It is common for our students to have disengaged from education in previous schools. Some of my students couldn’t spell their children’s names before incarceration.

“The day my baby was born, she changed me in ways I’ll never know. She looks like me with olive skin, as silk as snow. And that smile, they say you look like your daddy. How I miss you so. You’re my saviour. I think about you everyday. I miss everything about you in every way. I may not have always been by your side, but you’re always in my heart,” Anonymous student.

Can you describe the parenting program curriculum. What kind of topics do you cover with the young fathers?

The curriculum is hard to explicate as it’s personalised to the students I have at any given time. All students complete a survey during their first class to identify outcome areas and together we form an individualised learning plan and goals.

The program provides young fathers detained in custody with a safe space for discussion and learning. Students are given a platform to reflect on their upbringing and share stories from their childhood if they feel comfortable, and together we explore ways to provide a different path for their child or children.

The parenting program is not compulsory. As a result, the young fathers who attend truly want to be there, to better themselves for their child or children.

Class topics include:

  • Stages of development and learning in early childhood
  • Understanding parenting inheritance
  • Understanding and managing behaviour
  • Acknowledging mistakes and rebuilding
  • Connecting with your child
  • Exploring notions and experiences of parenthood
  • Developing empathy and positive self-perceptions
  • Parenting rights and responsibilities
  • Problem-solving and communications
  • Influencing and raising a responsible child
  • The disciple of logical consequences
  • Parenting under difficult circumstances
  • Drug and alcohol use and parenting
  • The effects of anger on children

Do you also do practical activities with the young fathers?

Yep, we do lots of practical things. I give each of my students a journal for writing letters, poems and stories to one-day share with their child or children. For some, this journal will only be a keepsake at this stage in their lives, but others send letters from their journal to their child on the outside.

The intention of the journal is to encourage students to express their feelings to their child in a positive way, and to one day show the child that their dad was always thinking of them, despite being absent for a long period of time.

“The day you were born was the most important thing in my life. My old life has caught up with me and I’ve been sentenced for 4 months. My life has to change. I cry when I think about you. I love you my boy,” Anonymous student, (Father Journal).

We also do finger-painting, hand-printing and other artwork that students send to their child. I find when students relive their childhoods it helps them gain a sense of their children’s needs. But some of our students didn’t go to kindergarten or have, what you would call a normal childhood, so these activities are completely new to them.

It’s magnificent to see how involved the students get with activities you rarely see adults do, such as creating sticker collages and finger painting. This is a constant reminder of how many of our students missed significant development stages in their childhood and grew up way to fast due to the path that was laid out for them.

Another wonderful thing our students do is record audiobooks of themselves reading their favourite children’s’ books, which they hope to one-day give to their child.

Does the program involve connecting with students’ families or caregivers?

Yep, I definitely try as much as possible to keep in contact with the important people in each student’s life to give updates on their learning and achievements. I also attend mid-week visits with my students’ families/or caregivers.

A really special moment for me was when a young father invited me to a visit with his girlfriend where he met his baby for the first time. This was a moment I’ll never forget. It was so beautiful.

It sounds like your classes benefits your students immensely. Can you tell me a little bit about the benefits of the program.

I think each student benefits in a unique way. Some student’s benefit most from reflecting on their childhoods and considering the factors that influence their behaviour, others benefit from techniques and strategies to better themselves to be the best father they can be. Many of my students benefit from regular outreach with families and others benefit most from the practical side of the parenting program, which helps the students feel connected with their child.

In my experience, having a child is a fundamental motivator for change for young people detained in custody and I’ve been lucky enough to see some incredible transformations.

Is there any particular student journey that sticks out to you?

I do. At the start of the year I was warned about a student and advised that staff were told not to mention his son, as it was a trigger for aggressive behaviour. However, through outreach we slowly developed a connection and he eventually told me about his son.

I think I could have been the first person to ever acknowledge his role as a father in a positive way. I congratulated him, told him what an awesome thing it is to be a dad and invited him to the parenting class. From then on, he came to every class for the next 4 months until he was released. He was so proud of his father journal. Mentioning his son was no longer a trigger for aggressive behaviour.

How incredible Rani, you should feel very proud. You’re making a huge difference. What do you enjoy most about your role?

Helping young fathers create a positive life for their child is incredibly rewarding. But my favourite part of my job at Parkville College is working with students through their entire journey at the Malmsbury Youth Justice Precinct. I love seeing the transformation that happens with so many of our students whilst incarcerated, when they are provided with a therapeutic and positive environment.

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