Roice Rulon-King won’t see his daughter for Father’s Day.
But that’s nothing new, because it’s been six years since he’s been able to see her. The closest he gets to seeing her now is having her name, Persephone, tattooed on his right arm.
Rulon-King, 32, grew up in Mullica Township but lives these days in the Atlantic County jail. He’s there on heroin-possession charges, and this isn’t his first time behind bars. He says he started using drugs at 14 and, despite repeated attempts to quit, he got himself back in trouble and back in jail.
And Persephone, now 13, lives in Florida. She was 7 when she moved there with her mother, and although she usually writes her dad about once a month, she hasn’t visited him and it has been years since he could travel out of state to visit her.
This inmate/father is hardly alone in playing little part in his child’s life. That’s why the county jail has joined four other local agencies to form the Father’s Care Network, a 6-month-old program that tries a variety of tactics to reunite fathers with their families — everything from parenting classes to job-training sessions to offering the fathers help in dealing with the sometimes understandably bitter mothers of their estranged children.
The Father’s Care Network isn’t just for men in jail: There are fathers who show up on their own at employment-support classes and weekly group meetings at the Atlantic City offices of the Youth Advocate Program. Some of them are estranged from their children, too, and hoping the program can help with a reunion, but the jailed fathers have some of the longest, hardest roads back into their kids’ lives.
“You have to remember you’re typically working with addiction, with people who didn’t follow life’s rules,” said John McLernon, the jail’s social-services director. He brought a group of 16 inmates in for their first training session in the fathers group earlier this month, and said all 16 were in treatment for addiction to alcohol or drugs, or both.
“They were out on the streets,” said McLernon, who is also a drug and alcohol counselor. Some “were in survival mode for a decade, and now you’re asking them to be loving, nurturing fathers.”
Rulon-King knows all about addiction — he figures he tried to get off heroin at least 10 times on his own, and several more times with professional treatment.
“It was also my being addicted that kept me away from (Persephone),” he said, standing in a jail hallway during a break from a Father’s Care lesson. “I didn’t want to show the drug-addicted me to her. So I’ve kind of kept her at a distance, because I didn’t want her to see me like that.”
But now that he’s in treatment — and optimistic that the treatment may finally work this time — he is hoping to reconnect with his daughter. McLernon suggested to him that the Father’s Care Network can help with that even before he gets out, by letting them use Skype to talk face to face again, over computers. Rulon-King said he looks forward to Skype chats “helping me bridge the gap” with a teenage Persephone.
Alcohol and drugs also have Greg Zachodylo back in jail today. He got a 360-day sentence last year for driving while intoxicated — after being arrested four times in 10 months.
Zachodylo, 43, is a father of five from Egg Harbor Township, and while he isn’t sure whether he’ll see the kids today, they aren’t strangers in each others’ lives. When he gets out, he’ll go back home, and all his children have visited him in jail — even the 7-year-old, which was hardest on both of them.
“I’ve got great kids,” he said, with a little smile, “in spite of all their father’s best efforts.”
Jail doors slam as Zachodylo acknowledges that “I’ve done a lot of harm to them. They deserve for me to make better choices.”
Martie Granieri, a nurse-educator for The Women’s Center — another partner in the Father’s Care Network — tries to help the jailed fathers learn how to do that.
“Regardless of what you’ve done or the promises you haven’t kept,” she emphasized to her new group of dads during their first session, “your children love you, need you and want you.”
She teaches an eight-week program that runs from “respect — how to give it and how to get it,” to “ages and stages” of children’s lives, to how the dads can manage anger and stress.
Granieri also teaches a one-on-one “dad’s boot camp,” or two hours of intensive lessons on infant care. Claudia Ratzlaff, executive director of The Women’s Center, said lots of men need to learn the basics of fatherhood as adults because they grew up without fathers themselves, and “so they had no role models.”
One of Ratzlaff’s organization’s roles in the Father’s Care Network is acting as a go-between for the fathers and the mothers of their children. The Women’s Center does that very carefully — “We’re the domestic-violence agency,” Ratzlaff cautions, and so it isn’t in the business of reuniting abusers and their victims. And in many cases, it has to overcome women’s reluctance.
“Mothers are certainly skeptical if they’ve been burned in the past or there has been no support,” she said.
Leaders at a recent group meeting for fathers at the Youth Advocate Program emphasized that they’re not matchmakers or miracle-workers — “We’re not going to all be holding hands and singing, ‘Kumbaya,’” said Lamont Fauntleroy, YAP’s Atlantic County director. “But it has to be civil between you and the mother. ... One of our goals is to help mend that gap any way we can.”
Some of the fathers are working for local public and private employers, in jobs funded through grants to YAP. Other partners in the Father’s Care Network include Career Opportunity Development Inc., which provides job-training and employment support. The Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office is also in on the network, in part by offering some jailed fathers a place in that office to meet with their children so kids don’t have to visit Dad in jail.
The New Jersey-based Pascale Sykes Foundation is funding the Father’s Care Network with a grant, and recently agreed to keep paying for the program for another year, Ratzlaff said. And the agencies involved aren’t doing all this just as a Father’s Day present to some lucky dads, the jail’s McLernon said.
“The ultimate goal is to get these adults to pay child support,” he said.
About 20 men at the jail have been through the Father’s Care Network so far, and McLernon said the participants were chosen carefully, based largely on their probability of succeeding in the program and sticking with their children, and their parental duties.
“If they re-enter their child’s life,” McLernon said, “unequivocally the worst thing they can do is to do that — and then disappear again.”
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