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Adrian Walker

Parenting behind bars

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / June 19, 2010

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Haji Shearer is a phenomenally engaging man, and to engage his audience he needs to be.

Shearer is a social worker for the Children’s Trust Fund, and he is conducting a parenting class at the Suffolk County House of Correction. The program is a joint venture between the Children’s Trust Fund, a terrific child welfare agency, and the sheriff’s department.

His audience is a group of two dozen inmates hoping to forge better relationships with their children, both while they are in jail and after they are released.

Fatherhood seemed to weigh heavily on the members of the class, in spite of the fact that their contact with their children is necessarily limited, conducted largely through phone calls, occasional visits, and even more occasional letters.

But just about all of them will eventually be released, most within three years. Shearer’s role is to help them lay the groundwork for building better relationships. But before they can do that, they have to address another issue: the often rocky relationships they have with the mothers of their children.

“My experience is that fathers love their children unconditionally,’’ he tells the men. “We’re less likely to show that love’’ to their mothers.

Just how dysfunctional those relationships can become is obvious from the first exercise they are asked to attempt. Shearer asks them to list the qualities of a bad partner and then the qualities of a good partner.

The bad side of the chalkboard fills up almost immediately: bad attitude, poor communication, and promiscuity are some of the negative qualities they yell out. The qualities that mark a healthy relationship almost stump them, and some of the ones that occur to them are primarily sexual. Shearer gently guides them to the idea that communication might be a quality of a good relationship.

“Your children are going to benefit if they feel like you respect her,’’ he tells the class. The hour has gone by in a blur.

“This is really about building emotional intelligence,’’ Shearer tells me later. He admits that persuading inmates to change behavior is a major challenge. “It’s hard for them sometimes to listen to good advice, because we’re all caught up in selfish desires and ego and the desire to be right.’’

Shearer said that if a man can learn to communicate better with his children and significant other, those skills can carry over to other areas.

“These are the same skills they will need to deal with a boss or in the workplace,’’ he said.

Two inmates agreed to talk about the challenge of being parents from behind bars. DeQuan has nine children, ranging in age from 16 to 2. Anthony has two children, 4 and 8 months. Both of them are serving time for drug-related offenses and have been in and out of jail for most of their children’s lives.

“The most difficult thing is telling them genuinely how much I love them and care,’’ Anthony said. “I can talk to them, I can write them letters, but I’m not there.’’

Both said they are in frequent communication with their children, but that sheer absenteeism had weakened the bonds with them. They said they are honest with their kids about why they are away and hope their children will learn from their experiences.

“I’m very honest, and I tell my kids to always be honest with me,’’ DeQuan said. “I tell them the truth, that I made a mistake.’’

Anthony said he calls his 8-month-old son, even though the baby isn’t old enough to carry on a conversation. He thinks, though he isn’t sure, that his son knows he is his father.

“It’s hard knowing I’m not going to be there for his birthday,’’ he said. “I want to be there for him, as a parent and as a man.’’

Both said they look forward to putting their parenting training to work after they are released. “I know I have to make better choices,’’ DeQuan said. “I want to be a better role model.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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