Children perk up with new approach to detained fathers

Doing homework together, giving a hug, playing a game. Until recently this was almost impossible for detained fathers and their children. But no longer so in the penitentiary institutions (P.I.s) of Veenhuizen and Leeuwarden. Where, together with the Hanze University of Applied Sciences and the University of Groningen, a completely new approach is being developed and put into practice.

Children. They always suffer when a parent disappears behind bars. They feel shame, insecurity, powerlessness. It’s not uncommon for them to end up in a situation with financial problems, with tensions between their parents, with stress. For decades, there have been programmes for detained mothers to counteract these harmful consequences for children. And now for fathers, too.

“If you read the report from the Children’s Ombudsman’s from 18 months ago, you know that things need to change”, says Marie-Anne de Groot. “It comes down to it that children are punished just as severely as their convicted father. This cannot be the intention. We are talking about 25,000 children a year! We’re trying to reduce the risk of trauma for children.”

The director of P.I. Veenhuizen is referring to the family approach used by the institutions of Leeuwarden and Veenhuizen. The idea is just as simple as it is sometimes difficult to implement: to ensure that children maintain better contact with their father, that they can visit him, see him, hear him, touch him. In an environment that they find pleasant. In both P.I. Leeuwarden and P.I. Veenhuizen, detained fathers are assembled in one department: the father’s wing. They are given special activities to enable them to fulfil their fatherly role as best as possible. What’s more, they can stimulate one another and have conversations about the things that fathers run into.

Director Marie Anne de Groot of the penitentiary institution Veenhuizen.

It’s just ‘normal’ for a moment

Not that the prisons are now suddenly turning into fun parks. It’s sometimes about making subtle yet very deliberate shifts in emphasis. A painting in the corridor, a cheerful colour on the wall. Yet there are also bigger interventions. In Veenhuizen, for instance, two consulting rooms were converted into a family room. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in a holiday apartment on a weekend getaway. There’s a kitchen, a comfy sofa, a TV, a cupboard full of games, some toys and a laptop.

“Families can really spend time together here. The laptop means that fathers can help children with their homework. They cook together, watch a film. It’s just ‘normal’ for a moment. Very different from the visiting room where there’s often noise, and where several prisoners talk to their families over a glass screen. And that helps the child enormously. Also in preparation for later when Daddy will be home again.”

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Fathers also change

It may all sound rather obvious, and yet this barely happens in the world. The director discovered a good example in Wales, thanks to students from the Hanze University of Applied Sciences who had completed an internship there. “In that prison, they’ve been working according to this principle for years and the figures are impressive. Far fewer of these children come into contact with the law themselves, their school achievements are improving by leaps and bounds, and they are bullied far less. In short, they have a better future.”

But it cuts both ways. Fathers themselves also change. They are much more involved with their family, and so they are able to see much more clearly what they have to lose, what they are doing it all for. This means that they are more seriously engaged with the life they wish to lead once they are on the outside. This helps reduce recidivism. Apart from that, you notice that it’s quieter in the P.I., that there are fewer riots.”

The idea that a place in the programme is a reward for fathers is firmly dismissed by Marie-Anne de Groot. “The cell door is locked in the evenings and at night. Perhaps that’s even more difficult when you’ve just spent an afternoon with your children. Apart from that: we do a heavy screening to see which fathers are allowed and also want to participate. Around a quarter of them get through. The safety of all participants is paramount. Participation is not to be sneezed at. As a prisoner, you commit yourself to a programme that means that you are working seriously on your future, including painful confrontations with your past.”


RUG and Hanze conduct research

It seems evident that this approach is positive for both father and child. There’s also plenty of interest from the rest of the country. Nevertheless, it is essential that research is carried out. “Not only do we want to know what effects can be measured. We are also working on standardisation. What are the requirements that a detained father has to meet to ensure that the approach is successful, for example? What helps, what doesn’t help. How should the staff be trained? We are looking for a blueprint that can be used in other P.I.s. This is what students and researchers at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences are working on, also from their Innovation Workshop here on site.”

At the same time, the University of Groningen is conducting a PhD research into the effects of the approach on detained fathers and their children. The results of which are expected within the next few years.