Hope for Kids with Incarcerated Dads

James* was five-years-old when his dad was arrested and sent to the Albemarle Regional jail. James went to live with his grandmother. Five-year-olds are high energy and a bit rambunctious. However, over the course of a few weeks it became evident to his grandmother that James’ increasingly loud outbursts and frenetic body movements were beyond what was deemed ‘normal’ for his age. James missed his father. He had no words to describe the feelings within him, so they came out in other ways.


Child Welfare experts have long known anecdotally that the shame and separation of having an incarcerated parent affects a child’s development and behavior. In 1998, they got proof. The release of a now famous study referred to as the “ACEs Study” detailed how ten different Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) were linked to poor physical and mental health outcomes in adulthood. Nestled among the more cited ACEs like child abuse or neglect was having a family member in prison.

Children affected by incarceration are a vulnerable population. Often they are living in poverty. Also, because 92% of incarcerated parents are fathers, they live with either a single mother, a relative or in the foster care system. They are, more often than not, black. One in 9 African-American children have a parent in prison, compared to one in 57 white children. The feelings of abandonment when a parent is incarcerated harm a child’s developing brain. It changes how they respond to stress and damages their immune systems so profoundly that the effects show up decades later .


It can feel very “gloom and doom”. Like, these children are stuck in a societal pattern that’s impossible to reverse. But, it’s not true. The best treatment to combat Adverse Child Experiences is strong relationships with competent parents. How do we strengthen the relationships of children affected by incarceration? How do we make incarcerated parents more competent at parenting upon their release? This is how ReadyKids opens the door to bright futures for these children.

In 2007, ReadyKids created a program called REAL Dads aimed at coaching incarcerated fathers to have Responsible, Empowered, Available and Loving relationships with their kids. It was, and still is, the only evidence-based fatherhood program in the Charlottesville-area.

“I think often we think father’s programs are just about the father,” said Eddie Harris, Fatherhood Specialist with REAL Dads. “We’re approaching it from the perspective that the most important and valuable asset is the family. When a parent gets help, it helps the whole family.”

REAL Dads focuses on providing parenting classes to men who were incarcerated, or newly out of incarceration. Each year, REAL Dads works with 6 fathers in the Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional jail in a weekly fatherhood group. Outside of the jail, Harris works with approximately 30 fathers recently released from jail or estranged from their children for another reason.


Hope for Kids with Incarcerated Dads

In 2017, a growing body of research began to support the use of contact visits between incarcerated fathers and their children. A child who not only visits their parent in jail or prison, but is able to have quality time with them, has improved outcomes. Usually when children visit a parent in jail or prison, they are confined to a crowded, loud visiting room. Or, they must talk through a plexiglass wall. REAL Dads worked closely with the regional jail to begin twice-yearly contact visits, where fathers and their children can be together in a quiet, supervised space for special family time. Last year, 11 children in Charlottesville were able to play games, get hugs and spend quality time with their incarcerated fathers.

The visits make a difference.

“The look and smile on my son’s face as he ran up to me with a huge hug, really made me feel good,” said one REAL Dads participant. “He talked about how he beat me in the board games for days after it.”

The greater research backs up this particular REAL Dads’ experience. Contact visits are vital to a child’s mental health. According to the Urban Institute, “Spending time together as a family through play, conversation, or sharing a meal can help mitigate children’s feelings of abandonment and anxiety.” What’s more, children who continue to stay in touch with their parent in prison exhibit fewer disruptive and anxious behaviors. There is also evidence that contact visits helps lower recidivism rates for the parents.


One REAL Dads participant held his infant daughter for the first time in a contact visit two years ago.

“I had so many different thoughts going through my head, just finally getting the chance to touch my first born child,” he said. “The whole day after the visit I was day-dreaming about her growing up and what type of environment I wanted her raised in … I really wanted to change my own way of living.”

As for James, a visit with his dad in jail changed him for the better.

“I spoke to my mom and she says she wishes she could have a monthly contact visit, because she actually can see the difference in his behavior after each visit,” said James’ dad. “He starts the week off telling everyone what we did, that he has to be good and so does daddy so he can have class with me at ‘Big Boy Timeout.’ I am able to feel a little better knowing I am giving 100% to give him all that I can and I will continue to do so.”


To learn more about REAL Dads visit the REAL Dads website. Also, there are several ways you can support REAL Dads this weekend! Random Row Brewing is hosting a Fathers’ Eve Event on Saturday, June 15 from 6 to 10 p.m. to celebrate the “brotherhood of fatherhood.” Proceeds go towards our REAL Dads program. Then, on Sunday, June 16, Craft Cville will support the important work of the REAL Dads program at Ready Kids with an event at Castle Hill Cider from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Join us for either event this Father’s day weekend!

Or, you can make a donation in honor of your dad this Father’s day by visiting our donation page. Happy Father’s Day!

* Name is changed to protect confidentiality

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A HUGE thank you to the volunteers that came out to ReadyKids this morning for the United Way TJA Day of Caring!

Employees from UVA Imaging, UVA Information Technology Services – ITS, UVA College of Arts & Sciences, LexisNexis, Rivanna Station, and Old Dominion National Bank helped us:

Thank you. It was a lot of work, but our volunteers did a wonderful job keeping the morning running smoothly all with a smile on their faces. Volunteers are such an important part of ReadyKids. They should know how special they are!


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Many of the fathers in the ReadyKids REAL Dads program face an uphill battle when it comes to building a relationship with their kids.  They’re often coming out of jail, they’ve missed important milestones in their child’s life, they have to pay child support, and they’re struggling to find employment and housing because they have a felony on their record.

“It can beat you down,” said Eddie Harris, REAL Dads Fatherhood Specialist.  “It’s easy to give up.”

With so many obstacles, why not give up?

“Children need their fathers,” said Harris.  “Something we don’t recognize as a culture is that fathers also need their children.  It’s a connection deeper and stronger than any relationship they’ll ever have.  Their children are a part of them.”

Three fatherhood experts weigh in on how to keep engaged with your kids, even when things are stressful.

  1. Be an Example of Resilience

Whether or not you had a good dad, your child needs a great dad.  You can be that for them, no matter what your history is.

“Never give up,” said Harris.  “You have to be persistence and patient and willing to evolve into someone responsible and loving.  Regardless of the situation or the circumstances, you have to fight for your relationship. This has to be more important to you than anything else.  Own the relationship you have with your kids, and make it better.”

  1. Meet the Child Where They Are

Remember the wonder and the innocence of childhood?  It’s a magical time with fewer worries and clearer priorities.  Allow yourself to see the world through their eyes, it’ll help you feel a little lighter.

“If your son or daughter asks you to play, build with blocks or draw – stop and do it,” said Jon Elliot, organizer of the Charlottesville Fathers Eve event.  “Those moments go miles in building and strengthening your relationships.  It’s more important than anything you are in the process of doing, and way more fun.  When they are older, those moments will be fewer and farther in between, so enjoy them while you can.”

  1. Do Something

If you’ve been fighting with your kids, this is an especially important one.  Nothing generates conflict faster than boredom, and it’s important to remember that his goes for Dad too.  If Dad is bored, he’ll be far less fun to be with and far less patient with kids being kids.  Here’s a few suggestions of activities kids enjoy – read a book together, play a board game together, play ball, go to a park, see a movie, grab a piece of paper and a pencil and play tic-tac-toe or hangman.

“Don’t wait for the kid to take the lead, they’re looking to you as the adult,” said Alex Jarboe, an experienced Boy Scout Den Leader.  “Have a plan and multiple backup plans.  What you think will take 30 minutes might take 10, or it might not be as fun as you thought.  Always have options to fall back on.”

During this Father’s Day month, thank you to all of the hard working dads building relationships with their kids.  You make a difference every day.  If you are interested in learning more about the REAL Dads program, contact Eddie Harris.

Help More Dads and Kids

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The ReadyKids Play Partners program partnered with the Virginia Festival of the Book for a kid-friendly story time at C-ville Coffee this past Saturday, March 24.  Over 75 parents and children attended this fun-filled story time introducing children to the book Mrs. Wishy Washy by Joy Cowley.

The morning included an interactive reading of the book, songs, finger plays, crafts, and an appearance by Mrs. Wishy Washy herself.  Each kid made their own Mrs. Wishy Washy puppet and farm animal puppet – from popsicle sticks and construction paper – to reenact the story at home.

“The best part for me was the faces, watching the kids’ faces,” said Ali Davison, Play Partners Assistant.  “Their enthusiasm was really endearing.”

Play Partners

Play Partners teachers preschool-age kids literacy skills, active listening and focus through play and story-telling together.  Throughout the school year, our Play Partners volunteers go into area child care centers and bring books and so much more to get kids excited about reading.

ReadyKids is always looking for Play Partners Volunteers!  If you’re interested in giving two hours a week to preschool age children in Charlottesville visit this site for more information.   We would love to hear from you!

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Wishy Washy Kid 2015Bring your toddlers and preschoolers to Cville Coffee at 10:00 am on Saturday, March 25th for stories, songs, and fun activities! As part of the Virginia Festival of the Book, our Play Partners team will be presenting We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, retold by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. The event is free, so sit back and enjoy a cuppa and watch your kids have fun while learning!

Click here for more info on the Festival of the Book.


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