National Post

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Saturday, January 08, 2000

Imprisoned dads reach out
Research indicates the benefits of allowing children to develop positive relationships with prison-bound parents far outweigh the negatives of visiting jail
Jamaal Abdul-Alim
Milwaukee Journal; Sentinel

Dale Guldan, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Abdul-Malik Mujahid hopes to establish his paternity of the five-year-old boy he believes is his son. He wants to help ensure the boy doesn't end up in jail, like himself.

GREEN BAY, Wisc. - Usually, when a prisoner awaits results from a DNA test, his hope is to be exonerated from a charge of murder or rape. But behind the walls of the Green Bay Correctional Institution, a 20-year-old convict is awaiting results from a DNA test for a different purpose.

The inmate -- a convert to Islam who goes by the name Abdul-Malik Mujahid -- is trying to establish paternity for a five-year-old boy he believes he fathered at age 15, shortly before he was sentenced to life in prison for murder.

His goal is to legally advocate on behalf of the boy, a Milwaukee County Children's Court ward who could very well be one of the 1.6 million children in the United States whose fathers are behind bars.

Mujahid says he also wants to develop at least the semblance of a parental relationship with the child.

"I want to give as much fatherly advice as I can give him, and tell him the downside of the streets, of the importance of staying in school, and moving away from the life I have lived," he told a visitor recently at the prison.

Otherwise, he warned, the child could grow into an angry and troubled youth, much as Mujahid said he did because he never knew his father.

Many specialists, from child welfare advocates to fatherhood experts, say Mujahid is correct.

Nevertheless, Children's Court Judge Thomas Cooper questioned whether young children can reap any substantial benefits from men in Mujahid's position, no matter how noble their intentions might be.

"How would a five-year-old react by being taken up to prison to visit a stranger?" Judge Cooper asked. "What future is there for this child to establish any kind of relationship [with a man] who's gonna be in prison for the entire time until this child is an adult?"

Potentially, a better one, said Creasie Finney Hairston, dean of the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has conducted extensive research on issues that confront incarcerated fathers and their children.

"The benefits of being able to see your parent, maintain and build a positive relationship, far outweigh the negative experience of going to a prison to see somebody," she said.

Ms. Hairston applauds officials at Sing Sing prison in New York state for permitting a children's centre designed especially for young children to visit their imprisoned fathers.

"Kids need fathers," she said. "Children need to believe that there is indeed a parent who cares about them, in spite of whatever difficulties that parent might have had with the law."

Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, said the issues surrounding incarcerated fathers were "woefully neglected" for the better part of the 20th century.

But now there is a "growing awareness" that society might fare better if men in prison are better connected with their children.

"The relationship between these men and their children has the tremendous ability to transform their lives for the better," Mr. Horn said, adding such relationships could help reduce recidivism.

Perhaps more importantly, they could also help fathers who have broken the law to dissuade their children from following in their misguided footsteps. "This is particularly true when one establishes strong ties with a parent," he said.

Which is precisely what Mujahid wants for the boy he believes to be his son -- a kindergartener nicknamed "Lil' Boo" who lives with his ailing maternal great-grandmother in Chicago.

"The first thing they holler is: 'Where is the father?' " Mujahid said, referring to what he sees as society's chief concern over children who end up abused, neglected or in trouble with the law. "Well, he's in prison. But that should not prevent him from trying to have a major impact on his child's life, to try to keep him out of prison like he is himself."

Of course, not every child whose father is behind bars, or who has been abused or neglected, winds up in prison or leads an otherwise miserable life.

However, children who have been reported abused and neglected -- as Lil' Boo has been -- are 67 times more likely to be arrested between the ages of nine and 12 than other children, according to the Child Welfare League of America.

Experts warn that children of incarcerated fathers face similarly heightened risks for a wide range of problems, including but not limited to incarceration.

"Being the child of a criminal offender puts you at an incredible risk," said Denise Johnston, director of the Center for Children With Incarcerated Parents in California."The risk doesn't come from having a parent in prison. It's not like their lives were perfect and then dad went to prison and their lives fell apart."

Rather, children of incarcerated parents are at risk because they tend to come from backgrounds where transgenerational poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence, criminality and broken family bonds can conspire to bring about their downfall. "It means bad things happen to you," Ms. Johnston said.

That certainly has been the case for Lil' Boo, whose teenage mother was convicted of physical abuse of a child. Mujahid first learned about the situation when a notice from Milwaukee County Children's Court Center arrived for him in prison.

It was the first news he had about the boy in years and it was not good.

At age three, Lil' Boo ended up being treated at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin after he suffered second-degree burns to his feet, ankles, buttocks and private parts.

The boy had been scalded in a bathtub filled with hot water, a hellish baptism into the kind of horrid life Mujahid had hoped the boy could avoid.

"It's a hurting feeling," Mujahid said. "At the same time, I fault myself for the choices I made that caused me not to be there."

Mujahid had a miserable childhood as well. At age six, he saw his drunken mother shoot a woman in the chest on the way to a bar. When he was nine, he and his brothers and sisters witnessed their mother kill the father of three of her children.

His grandmother, who shared the responsibility of raising Mujahid, shot and killed the father of her children in 1962.

But the bloodletting by Mujahid's relatives represents only the extremities of what went on in their daily lives.

Milwaukee County ultimately spent more than $1-million (US) in resources on the family, and initiated hundreds of contacts because of frequent reports of child abuse and neglect involving Mujahid and his younger siblings.

Ultimately, guns and gang affiliation led him to where he is today. A judge sentenced him to life in prison with no eligibility for parole until 2015 for fatally shooting a fellow gang member.

For now, Lil' Boo is still with his great-grandmother. Reached by phone recently, the woman said the Green Bay prison where Mujahid is held is too far away and the trip too costly for her to visit. "I don't go to jails," she said. "I don't have those kind of finances."

Mujahid has written to her and has sent Christmas gifts to Lil' Boo -- including this Christmas -- through a Salvation Army toy program.

But he never got any response, prison officials said. "I'm not a writer," the woman said, explaining why she never acknowledged Mujahid's gestures.

This Christmas, Mujahid sent a present home to his mother, with hopes she might be able to deliver it to Lil' Boo. But the woman says she hasn't seen the boy since he was a baby.

"I don't know where he is," Mujahid's mother said recently, while smoking a cigarette in the hallway of her home on Milwaukee's south side. She said the gift arrived at her house not long ago. Still wrapped in plain brown paper, it has yet to be delivered.

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