When Daddy’s behind bars

SANTA FE, N.M. – Two-year-old Kreed Goldsmith calls the big building surrounded by razor wire “Daddy’s house,” because that’s where he gets to visit every few months with his father.

“We’ve all had some sort of victims; we’ve all hurt somebody,” said Kreed’s father, Bryan Goldsmith, 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, many of whom had difficult family relationships even before being arrested.

Goldsmith and a handful of others at the prison complex south of Santa Fe have found help from new programs aimed at bridging the gulf between them and their kids.

The Long Distance Dads program, which started in New Mexico last year, focuses on parenting and relationship skills, and Fathers as Readers has dads audiotaping stories to send home for their children to hear.

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,” says Charles Stuart, former director of incarcerated father programming for the National Fatherhood Initiative, which runs Long Distance Dads.

The program is now operating in about 160 facilities in 25 states, Stuart said.

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

Instead, every month, Villareal sends his sons recordings of him 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 coloring books he has created for them. He has about five months left of his sentence for crimes including extortion and aggravated assault.

The boys’ mother tells him in weekly phone calls that the reading program keeps the kids talking about him.

“It’s ‘Daddy this, Daddy that. Look Mama, Daddy sent me this,’” Villareal said. “It’s like I’m gone, but I’m not forgotten.”

Long Distance Dads involves two-hour weekly sessions over at least 12 weeks that discuss 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 abusive fathers. They have no role models – no good role models,” she said.

Villareal lost his father when he was 11 and “kind of grew up on the streets.” He says the sessions allowed him 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.

Goldsmith said the 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.”

The sessions also 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 promised.

Long Distance Dads, begun with one-time state funding of $100,000 that paid for the curriculum and the training, is offered in conjunction with the state 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 the state’s Child Support Enforcement Division, which handles fatherhood programs.

Goldsmith, who also has three older stepchildren, counts his blessings: a supportive wife and a close family – “My father’s my best friend” – who regularly come to visit him from northeast of Amarillo, Texas. The former teacher and basketball coach has about 17 months of prison remaining for having sex with a female student.

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, give prisoners a sense that they’re contributing to their children.

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

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