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Inmates learn parenting skills

Victor said it makes his hands shake to talk of the most precious memory he has of his one and a half-year-old son, Elijah.

“My fondest memory is everyday when I wake up and I’m having breakfast -- I remember waking up to go to work and he’d be sitting on my lap,” Victor said, not knowing quite how to put this memory into words others could relate to. “The last memory, I have of him, is sitting there eating Lucky Charms and watching Sesame Street with him. I never used to like Sesame Street. I used to think it was kind of dumb, but now it’s like the most special memory I’m going to keep forever.”

Like most dads, Victor worries about the troubles his son will face while growing up. He said he wants him to learn Spanish, which is Victor’s native language, and he wants to create a picture book that incorporates both English and Spanish for him. Parenting for Victor, however, comes with a challenge many other fathers don’t face. He has to try to do it from jail.

In the Island County Jail in Coupeville, nine men started a six week parenting course the jail and other county services and resources are offering from Nov. 17 through Dec. 22. The current six week session is the second series offered; the first six weeks ended Nov 3.

The class teacher, Karin Watson, who is a parent education coordinator for the Island County Health Department, said the hope is that these classes will help fathers and potential fathers overcome personal struggles acquired from bad parenting while they were growing up, learn techniques to conquer poor parenting habits they may have formed, educate them on what to expect from their children at different ages, and help them reconnect and mend relationships that may have fallen by the wayside, while they have had to serve time in jail.

Mike Etzell, who works for the Island County Health Department as a family and community educator, said the men are a captive audience with a great deal of time on their hands. These classes give them something to think about. The future is all these men can think about, because the present is already set for them.

“If you expect something different when folks are done putting in their time, they have to have the tools,” he said.

Another advocate for the parenting classes is therapist and author Connie Dawson. She said she thinks these parenting classes may help break the cycle of generational troubles passed on through lack of parenting or bad parenting.

“My passion about a parent or about talking about it is to make sure that everybody who wants to do things differently, gets what they need to do it,” she said. “The most important thing is not to pass on the same thing.”

These goals may sound lofty, but those inmates who returned for the second six week series of parenting classes only had positive comments about their first six week experience.

“The last class was pretty interesting,” Victor said. “I learned personally how to communicate and control my anger and my tongue. And pretty much talking to one another if you have a conflict with someone and don’t knuckle-up so quick.”

Victor said he wished he could have had this kind of teaching earlier.

“You know, she (his girlfriend and mother of his little boy) might write me right now, or maybe I could get some visits, but um ­— I don’t know,” he said.

Victor said he joined the class because he wanted to better himself so that when he gets out of jail, he can have a relationship with his son.

Island County Chief Deputy William F. Dennis said goals like Victor’s are what they are hoping to see from the program.

“Some people say, ‘Let’s rehabilitate the inmate. Other people say, ‘Let’s go ahead and punish the inmate.’ But if you look at the correctional facility, it is a combination of the two,” Chief Dennis said. “They’re here to be punished by the court. We’re just here to carry out the court’s mandate. And we’re going to rehabilitate them and reduce the recidivism.”

Chief Dennis said the parenting classes are a social program that the inmates can apply to themselves and their lives and acquire skills and habits that they will then take back home with them when they are able to leave.

He said inmates have to learn what it means to act or feel like a parent all over again, when they’ve not seen their children for months. This readapting and reconnecting is not all that different from when military parents return from serving overseas. They have to go through the same steps.

Chief Dennis said, in their most basic and preventative measures, the classes say, “Hey, it’s your child. You have a responsibility, if nothing else, as a human being to make sure that that child’s welfare and best interests are taken care of.”

He said even if these classes only result in one less child that is abused or neglected then they have succeeded in their efforts.

To pay for such a program, Jackie Henderson, human resource director for the Island County Health Department, said the jail teamed up with other human and adult resources to try and pull something together through existing funds. Currently, the classes and teaching are funded with substance abuse prevention funds, Island County Health Department funds and the Healthy Baby Project for Island County funds.

Out of the nine men attending the class, eight had children of their own and the ninth was the only “father” his girlfriend’s little boy knew, so each has his own parenting battles to fight and own personal demon to overcome to have the parental relationships they all hope to achieve.

These men are fathers to impressionable infants, school children, teens, young adults and grown men and women. What they learn in these classes they can apply to each of these children, teens and adults and try to mend what is broken, or improve a difficult parent/child situation.

Victor knows he must pay for his prior actions, and jokes that he will stand out as the valedictorian of the jail’s parenting classes by the time he leaves. But getting serious, he returns to the last memory of his son and hopes that someday he can create more fond memories.

“I think about that memory every day, and somehow, I pray to God that I could see more ...,” Victor said, stalling as he tried to control his voice. “You guys got kids ... with some of these parenting certificates, I can see my son again.”

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