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When Dad Lives In Jail: A Soft New German Way For Kids To Visit Prisoner Parents

Step outside...
Step outside...
Katja Auer

NUREMBERG - Paul wanted glitter on his Christmas expand=1] tree ornament; at his age – six – he doesn't think glitter is too girly. His dad took in the request and patiently started applying the glitter to the wet paint of the ornament they're making together.

"What does an angel look like?" a little boy at a neighboring table asks. If there weren't bars on the windows in here this could be any normal arts and crafts workshop.

But because it isn't, Paul’s real name isn't Paul, and the dads didn't want to be identified either. Every two weeks, they have father-child group sessions, where they can talk, play and make things together. Just like a normal family. As if dad didn’t have to return to his prison cell when it's over. As if he didn't have quite a way still to go before he's served out his sentence in the Nuremberg prison.

"Normal prison visits are frightening for children, they are not suitable," says social worker Beate Wölfel of Treffpunkt, a group that helps prisoners’ families. Together with the correctional facility, they organize the father-child sessions by trying to minimize the prison-visit feel – which on this day before Christmas is especially successful: every child has received a gift, and toys litter the space.

Regular prison visits take place in a sterile environment, with visitors and prisoners sitting opposite each other. Signs of affection may only be shown if the guards generously choose to look the other way for a few seconds. Whereas in the father-child sessions, cuddling is allowed – Wölfel and her colleagues know how important this is for the children. Treffpunkt was founded 20 years ago; it was the first such group in Germany. That there is a need for the service it provides and that it is currently not being widely enough met has just been established by a study undertaken by the European COPING research project, which looked at the situation of children of incarcerated parents in four countries. Justyna Bieganski of Treffpunkt took part in that study.

"It's not about making the sentence easier for the father; it's about a child's right to his or her father," she says. About 100,000 children in Germany have an incarcerated parent. The study showed that such children have more psychological and also physical problems as compared to other kids their age. As one 11-year-old told researchers: "On the outside, we act as if everything is normal." But it isn't – "so there is more stress," the little girl said. Many kids start having problems in school, there's often too little money, and many children worry too about the strain on their mother. Then there is the secrecy. The women tell all sorts of stories, Bieganski says, rather than admit to having a partner in prison. Their fear of stigmatization keeps them silent on the subject, and the children with them.

Missing out

Paul's dad is having a serious conversation with his son. "Mommy was so sad about what you did," he tells him, and Paul promises he'll never again help himself to candy at the supermarket without paying. "I'd like to be a little more strict with him," the father says, but he doesn't have the heart to because their time together is so short. He has served a year and three months of his sentence, and still has nearly six months to go. "You miss a lot" of their growing up, he says. He also has another, younger son with his partner, with whom he has been together for 11 years. She has a much surer hand with the kids than he does, he says.

But when he plays with Paul, they look very comfortable with each other. They laugh a lot. The father chases the son around the table, then daubs some green paint on his nose. Paul thinks his dad works here. His young father, just 23, says he wants to explain the situation to Paul, "but I don't him to perceive this as a model." This is not his first time in prison: sentenced for assault, he also missed Paul's first two years. "It's nothing to be proud of," he says. When he gets out, that's it: never again, he says. Next fall, Paul starts school and he doesn't want to miss that.

"Children are capable of really forgiving," says Wölfel. In her experience, many of them are not interested in why their father is doing time. "What interests them is when he's getting out." Treffpunkt used to run a children-only group but stopped because most of the children didn't really want to share their feelings. They were too used to keeping quiet about the fact that their father was in prison, Wölfel says. The father-child group is designed to have an every-day feel about it, because not having their dad around for every-day stuff is when the children miss their fathers most, she says.

Like the 14-year-old girl who is talking to her dad about shoes. She has 17 pairs already, but claims she needs another pair urgently. Her dad is explaining that many other kids have less allowance than she does, and that anyway one can't have everything. Or that she might have to give something else up if she decides to buy the shoes. "You don't understand," the teenager tells him, "you're a man." The social worker is asked for her opinion, but there's not much she has to say about this classic parent-child discussion.

At the beginning of each session at the prison, everybody sits together and fills out a form with their three dearest wishes. Paul, who doesn't yet know how to read and in anycase thinks his dad works here, says he wants toys. But the older children put a cross next to "that Dad never has to go to jail again." As reason, they write: "because I miss him."

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