Fathering tough from behind bars

By Deborah Baker: The Associated Press

SANTA FE — Two-year-old Kreed Goldsmith calls the big building surrounded by razor wire “Daddy’s house.”
There, the toddler gets to visit every few months with the father who lives 400 miles away.

“We’ve all had some sort of victims; we’ve all hurt somebody,” said Bryan Goldsmith, a former teacher and coach from Farwell who’s now an inmate at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. “But we’ve created victims in our own family, because now we’re away from them.”

If being a good father is a challenge in the best of circumstances, it’s particularly tough for men behind bars.
Goldsmith and a handful of others in a minimum-security unit at the sprawling prison complex south of Santa Fe have found help from programs aimed at bridging the gulf between them and their kids.

The Long Distance Dads program focuses on parenting and relationship skills. The Fathers as Readers program has dads taping stories to send home.

Such programs “can make a difference not just in the lives of children, but in the recidivism rate — keeping these guys out, and making them productive citizens,” contends Charles Stuart of Harrisburg, Pa., until recently the director of incarcerated father programming for the National Fatherhood Initiative, which runs Long Distance Dads.

Stuart, who marketed the program for NFI and trained its teachers, said it’s currently operating in about 160 facilities in 25 states. That includes seven New Mexico prisons that house state inmates.

Tomas Villareal of Carlsbad was afraid when he entered the penitentiary that he would lose touch with his young sons, 3 and 1.

Instead, every month, Villareal sends home taped recordings of his voice reading three children’s books, along with the books themselves and a recent photo.
He puts personal messages — “I love you, babies; Daddy will be home soon” — on the tape, and also sends the youngsters handmade coloring books he has created for them.

Their mother tells him in weekly phone calls that it keeps the kids talking about him.

“It’s ‘Daddy this, Daddy that. Look Mama, Daddy sent me this,”’ said Villareal, who has about five months left of his sentence for crimes including extortion and aggravated assault. “It’s like I’m gone, but I’m not forgotten.”

The 4-year-old Fathers as Readers program is available in the five men’s prisons run by the state, and a version of it also is offered at the women’s prison in Grants.

Long Distance Dads involves two-hour weekly sessions for at least 12 weeks, revolving around issues such as child development, communications skills, and anger management.

“We talk a lot about where they learned their parenting skills — and what they want to keep and discard,” said prison educator Melody Whitehead.

“One disappointingly common thread is that many of these men had absent fathers or a busive fathers. They have no role models — no good role models,” she said.

Villareal, who lost his father when he was 11 and “kind of grew up on the streets,” says the sessions provided a place where it was comfortable to talk about himself and his family.

“It’s prison. … I don’t have nobody to talk to about my kids. And taking this class, with other dads involved, it helps us open up,” he said during a recent interview in the prison library.

The sessions got Villareal thinking about the effect of his incarceration on his family.

“They need me out there. … I’m going to do my time and straighten out my life and get in the right track,” he vowed.
The program also helps prisoners with practical matters such as navigating the child support system.

Begun last year with one-time state funding of $100,000 that paid for the curriculum and the training, Long Distance Dads is offered in conjunction with the Human Services Department.

“Hopefully the recidivism is going to decrease, and these kids are not going to have the role model of ’My dad went to prison, and I’m going to prison, too,”’ said Jacqueline Baca, program manager of the unit within HSD’s Child Support Enforcement Division that handles fatherhood programs.

Goldsmith said the diverse members of his group “all had that common bond: We were fathers, and so we were able to sit around and talk. And it didn’t matter who we were, or what brought us here.”

Goldsmith, who also has three older stepchildren, counts his blessings: a supportive wife and a close family — “My father’s my best friend” — that regularly makes the trip from northeast of Amarillo to visit him. Imprisoned for having sex with a female student, Goldsmith has about 17 months of prison remaining.

His wife, Kathy Goldsmith, who directs a program that provides services for the mentally retarded, says Kreed “loves getting the books in the mail” and knows his father’s voice.

The programs, she said, provide prisoners a sense that they’re contributing to their children even though they can’t be with them.

“I’m glad that it gives Bryan a sense of pride and a sense of connection with Kreed,” she said.