Michael Wilson said he would do “anything and everything” to be able to have a healthy relationship with his son.
A recovering opioid addict, now clean for more than four years, Wilson, whose last name has been changed for this story at his request, told a court-appointed guardian ad litem (GAL) that he wanted meaningful access to his 11-year-old son, who lives primarily with the son’s mother, Wilson’s former wife.
The GAL, sworn to act in the best interests of the child, suggested Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood, a program run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Hartford.
During hour-long weekly sessions with fatherhood specialist Luis Santiago at Southside Family Center in Hartford, Wilson discussed his thoughts and feelings on specific topics. “We talked about what it’s like to be a man and how to shape or mold our sons into being thoughtful, well-adjusted young men,” said Wilson, a professional chef working in a corporate setting in the Hartford area.
His sessions with Santiago were often difficult, he said. “There were a couple of sessions where I got emotional. And it was nice because it brought out things that I had been putting away and not bringing up, kind of hiding from,” he said.
Because of the success of the fatherhood program, Wilson’s son now spends every other weekend with him, and they see each other twice during the week, usually at his son’s karate practice or lacrosse games.
Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood was launched at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Hartford in 2012 to involve and engage fathers in the healthy nurturing of their children. Today, the program is in place at Asylum Hill, Southside and Parker Memorial family centers in Hartford. It is supported in part by donations to the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.
Santiago runs the program at Southside Family Center. Alwyn Foster heads it up at Asylum Hill and Parker Memorial family centers.
Santiago and Foster use their personal experience as dads and a lot of training to help as many as 180 other men each year to become better fathers.
“I’ve been involved in the fatherhood program since 2012, six years now,” said Santiago. He works to educate fathers on parenting skills and overcoming barriers.
Using a curriculum called Fatherhood Development, he stresses positive parenting, emphasizing the role of the father, he said. In the case management aspect of the program, he assesses the fathers and helps them overcome any barriers to loving relationships with their children.
“We set goals and we help them achieve them. Success can mean a lot of different things to different dads. One of them could be just getting employment. Another could mean getting custody or visitation rights to the kids,” Santiago said.
He asks each dad to make a commitment to complete an eight-week program, after which he bestows a certificate of completion. But that’s not the end.
“We say, ‘We’re here to support you. If you want to keep coming, you can keep coming.’ And some of the dads do come and continue to engage the services, while others feel they got what they needed and moved on,” he said.
Most men succeed, he said, and many return to encourage other dads in the program.
Foster has had similar successes at Asylum Hill and Parker Memorial centers.
“We provide an eight-week parenting program that covers everything from effective co-parenting to [child] advocate practices,” he said.
“We also do a family relationship course, which is a course between a mom and dad, whether they are together or just co-parenting from separate homes,” he said.
Some men are mandated to attend by the court system, to help them find ways to establish emotional bonds with their children while they find ways to catch up on financial support, he said. Other men step forward proactively because they recognize they need guidance, he said.
Santiago said, “I really believe that I’ve seen a difference when a father’s involved. The impact that a father has on the life of a child, it’s immeasurable. We understand that people say there’s no love like the love of a mother, and I respect that; but there’s such an impact that a father plays in both a son and a daughter — in different ways, but they do have an impact. We have so many people who are not complete because they don’t have a father involved in their lives.”
Both Santiago and Foster gave examples of how well the program is working.
Santiago said, “A couple of years ago, there was this father who came to me and he was working with child protective services in, I believe, North Carolina, because he had just found out – he didn’t know – that he had fathered a child, and five or six years had gone by and the child was in foster care and the mother had lost the rights to the child.”
Working with the North Carolina agency, Santiago helped the father to fly down there to see his child, he said.
“It took a lot of work, but one of the greatest things is that eventually he was able to gain full custody of this biological child, and they began to form a relationship,” he said.
Foster related another success story: “There was a dad that came into the group. You know, many of the guys are referred by the court, so they have a high level of disdain for even being there. But he came into the group and the other guys noticed that he had a little bit of an attitude and they addressed it,” he said.
“Come to find out, he had so
many issues with his children because he had so much unforgiveness in his heart for his own father. Long story short, we ended up reaching out to his dad throughout the course of the group – his own father – and amending that relationship,” Foster said.
“In the completion ceremony, his father was the only person to be there when he got his certificate,” he said.
“When you affect the father, you affect the whole family. You have so much influence on their wives or their girlfriends, and, as a result of that, you also influence their families. Every time I help a father to become a better man, I’m also helping the family to become a stronger family,” Foster said.
Before going through the program, Wilson said his son “didn’t seem happy, he seemed a little withdrawn. Now he’s very outgoing, very vocal. He’s a great kid. We have a very open and honest relationship. He talks to me about everything and anything,” Wilson said.
“And my son tells me that he can see a difference in me. He thinks that I’m more positive,” he added.
Santiago calls Wilson’s experience in Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood “one of the bigger success stories that we have. [The program] helped him build a deeper connection with his son, and he still checks in with me every so often.”