HOLLIDAYSBURG - When it came time to end a visit with his father, a 4-year-old boy didn't want to go home. He preferred to stay with Dad, whom he hadn't seen in a while.
He crawled into a toy box in the room and did not want to come out, said his dad, George Ceballos of Altoona.
After some coaxing and a promise that he would be taken to McDonald's, plus a vow that he would see his dad again soon, the little guy gave up his protest and went home to his mom.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Jeremy, an inmate at Blair County Prison who did not want his last name used, visits with his daughter recently in a special visitation area at the jail. The personal visitations are part of a Fatherhood Initiative started in the county to keep ties strong between inmate fathers and their children.
This story brought tears to the eyes of social workers who witnessed what happened, and it illustrates that dads, even though they may be in prison, are still important in the lives of their children.
"Inspiration" and "hope" are not often words used to describe the feelings of inmates at the Blair County Prison, but a new effort called the Fatherhood Initiative is changing that for many of the inmates who have been selected for the program.
Ceballos, who was the first inmate selected earlier this year for the Fatherhood Initiative, was asked if those in prison look forward to the visits with their children.
"Oh my God, yes," he quickly replied.
"I thought it was a good idea," he said, when he first learned about the program operated by Kids First Blair County, located on Fairway Drive. The organization also operates Lily Pond child development centers.
When he first went to jail, his daughter was 13 months old and his son was 4 years old. He was concerned that when he finished his sentence, his daughter wouldn't know him and his son would be leery about the man who suddenly reappeared in his life.
The Kids First program enabled Ceballos, who is no longer behind bars, to visit with his children. They began last March as he was on the downside of his sentence.
He said his children didn't know that he was an inmate. They thought he was going to school. All they knew was that they missed him.
He said the children enjoyed being around him during his visits, and he said the visits meant a lot to him, too.
They represented, as he put it, "something to look forward to."
By becoming close to his children while in jail, he saw that they needed him, and now that he has been released, he said, that close relationship continues.
"You come home to be home," he said.
During the visits, Ceballos said, he and the kids watched movies and did projects like building play houses. His daughter would pretend she was cooking dinner, and he and his son would play with action figures.
Visiting with the children was only part of the program, he said. He also worked closely with Holly Thompson, a social worker from Kids First.
"I think she really does care," Ceballos said of Thompson. "She teared up when [my son] didn't want to leave."
An idea becomes reality
Many people believe that prisoners, or parents who are in trouble, should not be allowed to visit with their children, as part of the punishment of committing crime.
But Maryanne Burger, director of Blair County Children, Youth & Families, said that philosophy is wrong, while acknowledging that children have to be removed from parents in difficult circumstances.
Her agency, which deals with hundreds of families and nearly 1,000 children a year, has studied the research and concluded that even in the most dire circumstances, children should have a relationship with their birth parents.
"Research shows how bad it is to have a lapse from parents," said Burger. "Kids don't think like adults. You take kids from the home and they ask, 'What did I do wrong?'"
When children are separated from their parents, they worry about them. They are concerned: "Are they OK? Are they alive? Do they love me?"
Worrying about their parents can lead to developmental and educational delays. In addition, Burger said the studies show that children of incarcerated dads are more apt to end up in jail than other children.
That is why Burger, Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva, the Blair County Prison Society and Blair County Prison Warden Michael M. Johnston came to believe that dads in prison need to maintain a relationship with their children.
A long time coming
The effort that is now under way was years in the making.
In the past, inmates' visits with their children often occurred at the prison with a child seeing their fathers through a glass partition. They couldn't hug or play together.
Then the courts began ordering visits that occurred at the First Presbyterian Church in Hollidaysburg and in Burger's offices in the Blair County Courthouse.
But the visits were less than ideal. Sheriff's deputies had to escort inmates, dressed in orange jumpsuits, to the visits.
Johnston said deputies and corrections officers had to be aware that moms or girlfriends could pass contraband to the fathers. Some children were frightened by the sheriff's deputies providing security at the courthouse.
The Blair County Prison also was not a good place for visits. Its steel doors and stark conditions didn't provide a child-friendly atmosphere.
Johnston said that he was attending a meeting one day with Kopriva, Sheriff Mitchell Cooper and Burger when Kopriva said it would be a blessing if there were some other place for prison dads to meet with their children.
"A light bulb went off in my head," said Johnston, who did his research and came up with a plan.
Next to the county jail was the former highway garage that housed the prison laundry but nothing else. Johnston proposed constructing an area in the front part of the old garage for visits between dads - and in the future, possibly moms - and their children.
"I can make this work," he said.
County and prison maintenance staffs and four or five carpentry-adept inmates went to work and in the past two weeks completed two large visitation rooms.
Johnston obtained sofas and chairs from a Centre County thrift shop run by inmates. He got a good price on carpet.
One of the inmates, a professional painter, painted the room in cheery colors.
Now the inmates, dressed in civilian clothes, can meet with their children in a living room-type setting.
The mother or other relative who brings the children to the visitation enters off the street through a normal screen door. The children, who are not searched, enter a bright, lavender-colored room where the walls are decorated with footballs, baseballs, basketballs and childhood figures.
The family member who escorts the children to the facility remains in the room just off the street. The child goes into an inner room with the father. A corrections officer is in the room, as is a Kids First social worker.
The fathers visit with their children for 90 minutes.
Kids First gets a grant
Kopriva said many people in prison have experienced loss in their lives.
"I think we have learned a great deal about grief and trauma," said Kopriva. "When you have children see parents going to jail, that can create trauma for the child that has a lifelong impact."
A goal of prison is to help inmates come out as better people, she said, and she believes that maintaining contact between dads and children benefits both.
"Basically [the Fatherhood Initiative] is for the kids to maintain connections with their dad," she said.
Another goal is for dads to have a relationship with their children.
In 2009, Thompson became interested in an effort after reading a newspaper story about Penn State students going into prison to counsel with mothers.
She worked with Kids First founder and CEO Jackie Clouser, who had worked in the mental health field and in early intervention with families who had special needs children.
They put together a grant for the Fatherhood Initiative that eventually was funded through the Office of Children, Youth & Families within the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.
The program, which began in February, will receive $30,600 annually for three years from the state, matched by $3,700 a year from Blair County Children, Youth & Families.
Clouser and Thompson said there are several components to the program, which has so far touched 31 inmates.
In addition to the visits with their children, dads go through sessions with Thompson and are encouraged to look inside themselves and write about what they are learning and how it will help them be a better dad.
They are given a fathering handbook that contains information about the physical, mental and emotional growth of children as they grow up.
They do projects, such as writing to their children or recording their voices reading books to their children.
A major part of the program is Family Group Decision Making, when dads who are about to be released meet with family members to talk about the inmate's strengths and outline goals - such as stay away from drugs and alcohol, find a place to live, get a job or go to school, and maintain a strong bond with the children - so his release will be successful.
The final stage is to follow up and provide aid to the inmate once released, explained Clouser and Thompson.
Inmates support initiative
James Flinch smiled as he stood in the new visiting room recently, noting the program "enables me to feel more like a parent."
He said he used to see his son through glass.
"It was pretty hard on my son. It was hard for him to see me behind glass," he said.
He said he can now play games with his son during a visit.
"I always thought I was a great dad. Now I know things I can improve on. You look in the mirror and see things you might not [want to] see," he said.
Other inmates who have participated in the initiative have similar praise for it.
A 22-year-old inmate wrote to Thompson that the effort "helped me realize that my kids really do love me and need me in their lives. My son never came out of the blue and told me he loved me till these visits. ... Thank you for doing everything you've done to help me. It really does mean a lot to me and my kids,"
Another inmate said, "I think the men liked it knowing that people are trying to help people with their children. ... There's positive people willing to help guys visit and participate in their children's life despite our circumstances."
In early November, Blair County had 308 inmates with 189 having children under 18 years of age.
Abbie Tate, who is in charge of treatment programs at the prison, said that Blair County does not just warehouse people but provides many programs, some addressing drug and alcohol problems, life skills such as how to use a checkbook and anger management.
Johnston said he hopes the inmate dads "see the light."
He tells the inmates that unless they decide to change their lives, 48 out of every 100 will be back. Johnston said his goal is to cut that rate of return to as low as 28 percent.
"Here's what I have seen. You take a guy, a drug dealer, whatever the case. You put him in jail for a year. If you don't provide him with programs to change him, he's going to go back to the same people, the same habits. Maybe we can make him see it can be better out there," he said.
He hopes that inmates will see that being a dad is one of the better things in life and make them say to themselves, "I don't want to screw up."
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.