Unique program connects children with fathers in prison
Sarah Stevens, W5
Published Friday, April 4, 2014 10:57AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, April 5, 2014 3:04PM EDT
Ten-year-old Mason Lang and his 5-yearold sister, Madison, live with a burden that is rife with stigma and shame.
Their father is in prison.
It’s a problem they share with about 180,000 Canadian kids who also have a parent in prison and who must endure the isolation and often guilt by the association of having a parent who has broken the law.
But a unique and innovative program in southern Ontario is offering support to both the kids and their incarcerated fathers.
FEAT, which stands for Foster, Empowering and Advocating Together, is a non-profit organization that helps to keep kids, mothers and their jailed fathers connected as a family.
Founded by the father and daughter team of Derek and Jessica Reid, the goal of FEAT is to keep families together even while separated. Ultimately, they hope strengthened family ties will give offenders a reason to avoid reoffending once they are released.
It costs Canadian taxpayers almost $90,000 a year to keep an inmate in jail, and studies have shown that prisoners who have regular visits from family have a 13 per cent decrease in recidivism rates.
Mason and Madison’s father, Jay, is serving a two-year sentence for selling drugs. Every other Sunday his kids and their mom, Renee, take a special bus to visit Jay three hours from their home at Fenbrook Institution, a medium security prison.
It’s a trip that Renee couldn’t afford to make without the assistance of FEAT. Adults pay $35 for the trip but the kids always ride for free.
The bus is jammed packed every week with families who travel to one of nine prisons where their loved ones are incarcerated.
Jessica and Derek ride along, visiting with the kids and talking them through what to expect when they get to go in and see their dads.
Passing through stringent security before they actually get to see and touch their father can be a daunting process for the youngsters but Jessica helps ease their fears.
As W5 captured on camera, the often emotional reunions mean just as much to the men behind bars as it does to their children.
“To actually be able to interact with them and touch them and kiss them, it’s big,” Jay told W5. “The toughest part of the visit is them going home and me not being able to go with them.”
After a four-hour prison visit, it’s back on the bus for the return trip. Jessica uses this time to provide vital support to the families.
The moms are often upset themselves, so Jessica pitches in, helping to comfort the children and even field questions about why their dads couldn’t come home with them. Jessica visits with each of the kids and spends time with them, reading, talking or even helping them to write letters to the fathers they have just left behind.
For Renee, the bus trips and visits to Fenbrook have been invaluable for the whole family including her partner, Jay.
“He knows he did something wrong but why does everybody have to suffer because he’s in jail?’’ Renee told CTV’s Bev Thomson in an interview.
The passengers on the bus all share a common bond and it’s important for the kids to know they are not alone in their situations.
Child psychologist Linda Baker has studied the stigma that often comes with having a parent in jail. She believes that anything that keeps the family unit in contact is a good thing.
“The general public does not have a lot of sympathy for people who end up on the wrong side of the bars. And unfortunately these children are innocent but become victims indirectly,” Baker explained to W5.
Jessica echoes that sentiment. “We need to recognize the children have done nothing wrong and if we don’t support them they are more likely to follow in their parents’ footsteps. So it’s important to provide support and allow them to express their feelings in a variety of ways.”
The message that Jessica and her father Derek want to get across is that by supporting their organization, FEAT, Canadian’s are not only helping families stay together but potentially helping society as a whole.