Washington Post

Fathers Facing Freedom

By William Raspberry
The Washington Post
Saturday, February 17, 2001; Page A31

PRINCESS ANNE, Md. -- It's almost startling to see the reaction of the inmates when Kent Amos walks into the dining room of the Eastern Correctional Institution here.

There is, most obviously, the deep respect they have for this one-time Xerox executive turned children's crusader. There is affection for a man they know will keep his commitment to them. And there is the sense that this quiet, no-nonsense visitor is their link with outside power.

But Amos is not here to plead anyone's case or facilitate anyone's parole. He is here for the newest graduation class from Kids House, an Amos-created program designed to help soon-to-be-released inmates learn to reconnect with their families -- especially their children, many of whom are here for the ceremony.

"This is a population where 95 to 96 percent will reenter society, though they have an abominable recidivism rate," explains Mannone Butler, Amos's top aide in the project. "We were concerned about how that fact impacts not just on crime rates but on children. After some brainstorming, Kent came up with Kids House."

She and Amos are at some pains to keep the approach from sounding too touchy-feely. After all, it involves having grown men read children's stories, crawl around on the floor coloring pictures, and, yes, get in touch with their feelings.

But it turns out, they insist, that one of the big obstacles between these men and normal non-prison life is their inability -- their deep-seated reluctance -- to acknowledge their feelings. "Here they learn to connect with one another by connecting with their often-painful childhoods," says Butler. "Many of them are confronting for the first time as adults what it means to be a child. They've disconnected from that as a show of weakness and therefore they're disconnected from their own children. When they open up, we learn that a large majority of them have powerful feelings about the lack of involvement of their fathers in their lives."

Prison officials say the improvement in the men's attitudes and behavior is unmistakable.

Amos has once again found a way to put some pet theory of his into practice. It's something he's been doing at least since the early 1980s, when, concerned about the sorts of youngsters his son Wesley was hanging around with at his new public high school, he decided to ask his son's friends to hang out at the Amos home.

The resulting study sessions and serious conversations led to the Amoses' "adopting" first Wesley's friends and then a succession of youngsters who needed guidance and structure in their lives.

Over the years, at least 87 youngsters became "Kent's Kids" -- at a cost Amos reckons at "literally hundreds of thousands of dollars" out of his own pocket. Dozens of these youngsters have turned out far better than their pre-Amos lives might have predicted. But, he insists, that approach wasn't big enough to make a critical difference in the way America deals with children.

He eventually left Xerox, which continued to support his volunteer efforts, and founded the Washington-based Urban Family Institute. He is also the driving force behind a pair of charter schools in the District of Columbia.

"When I left Xerox, I felt I had to do something that made leaving a good career make sense," he told me. "When you look at the place where our children most need structure, it's in the non-school time. School -- good, bad or indifferent -- does have structure. Kids House was initially a mechanism for organizing non-school time. I believe there ought to be a national effort to make non-school time developmental time, not just play time."

He refined his approach at a D.C. public housing complex, where he taught parents how to become effectively involved in their children's academic and social lives -- and then taught other parents how to take over the instruction.

Most of the mothers, though, had virtually no support from the fathers of their children -- often because the fathers were incarcerated. "I started looking for a way to 'marry' both mother and father to the child. That, I suppose, is the heart of the Kids House idea."

With support from a handful of foundations and the Justice Department's "Weed & Seed" anti-crime initiative, he established the first Kids House in Oakland, Calif., in 1994. Now there are 27 Kids House sites in 14 states, and Amos says he's negotiating for another 16 sites in Maryland alone.

The Princess Anne program is the first established inside a prison, as a way of smoothing inmates' reentry into free society. But like everything else Amos does, it's really about kids.

© 2001 The Washington Post