Latino Fatherhood and Criminal Justice
Conducting research on Latino fatherhood as a woman has gotten me mixed results. For some, it seems odd for a woman to conduct this research and for others it seems like a great study. But for me this research is about more than just the research itself. It began with an inquiry stemming from my own life. This is also not viewed positively in academia, especially for women of color, but it was like an itch I needed to scratch. I wanted to know why some Latino men were more likely to be engaged with their children as opposed to other men. I wanted to know what barriers and facilitators influenced engagement. Returning to my own life, these questions arose from my own experience with my Mexican immigrant father, a man who does not fit the traditional stereotypes of Latino fathers being less engaged, less loving, and, most of all, less involved. My father differs from the stereotype by always being supportive, loving, caring, demanding (with regards to our own life pursuits), but to this day remains involved in the lives of his three adult children. By involved I mean he provides us with good advice, listens to us, and helps us with tasks. This relationship with my father is why I pursued this research. I did it as a way to explore the relationships between Latino fathers and their children to see how common the one described above is in the Latino population.
For purposes of this brief research note, I focus on native-born fathers and the impact the criminal justice system has on their paternal involvement. I focus on this area of research because of insights I gained from interviews I conducted that gave rise to new understanding on how and why Latino native-born fathers are engaged with their children. Much of what I believed or thought prior to this study pointed me to examine how the criminal justice system shapes these relationships and the impact it has on healthy child development outcomes. Thus, I focus on answering the following research question: What are the facilitators and barriers to Latino fatherhood among previously incarcerated fathers in New Mexico? Through this research note, it is my hope that readers will gain a deeper understanding of the impact incarceration has on fathers, children, and future generations. This is particularly important given that the U.S. has the highest number of incarcerated persons in the world.
Why New Mexico?
The state of New Mexico (NM) has some of the highest rates of incarceration for Latinos when compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the state (Vera Institute of Justice, 2019). New Mexico is a fascinating case because it is a majority-minority state, with Latinos the largest population. Additionally, this state faces severe poverty rates among the Latino population. According to Moskowitz (2021), New Mexico ranked third with the highest poverty rates of all fifty states in 2019. The data show that 24.9% of those 18 years of age and under are impoverished and 13.5% of those 65 and older are impoverished. Said differently, one in four New Mexican children and one in seven elders experienced poverty in 2019 (Moskowitz, 2021). These poverty rates are important because many of the fathers who were interviewed and were former felons experienced poverty in their households. As is well known, household poverty is one of the principal factors associated with criminal behaviors; a precursor for seeking money through means that make the poor a regular fixture of the criminal justice system.
Another reason for focusing on New Mexico is the number of children in the state who have a parent who has been or is incarcerated. A report from 2016 prepared by New Mexico Voices states that roughly 52,000 children in New Mexico have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives. According to the report, 10 percent of the child population in New Mexico has experienced parental incarceration. The percentage of parents who are incarcerated in NM is also higher than the national average, lower only than in Indiana and Kentucky, which have higher percentages of incarcerated parents (New Mexico Voices, 2016).
Some consequences of parental incarceration among these children include living in poverty and dealing with homelessness, hunger, and emotional trauma. There is also a decrease in the parental connections between parents and children. These are examples of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that have been found to have detrimental effects on positive child development. ACEs have also been found to be more prevalent among Latino, Black, and Native American children. ACEs are also very high in New Mexico and not only impact child development but have effects well into adulthood. Some of the impacts faced in adulthood are poor health outcomes, including high incidences of mental health problems. Given these disparities in New Mexico, the state provides a context for understanding the impact of incarceration on Latino fatherhood.
Most studies in the area of fatherhood tend to focus on White fathers. Only recently has research increased that examines Black fathers, but the field is particularly lacking in studies on Latino fatherhood. In recent years, more researchers have been focusing on Latino fatherhood (Cabrera et al., 2009). Some disciplines that have added to our understanding of Latino fatherhood are psychology, sociology, and family studies. Research in these areas identifies ways to promote gender equity among partners, understand how to better serve fathers, especially those who are or were incarcerated, and to promote positive child development outcomes.
Research specifically focused on incarcerated fathers shows that Latino and Black children are particularly impacted by the incarceration of their parents when compared to White children (Swisher & Waller, 2008). This is especially the case with the high rates of Latino and Black fathers in prison (Garland, 2001). Some of the barriers that these families face with incarcerated fathers are logistics with regard to visitations. For instance, the prisons in which these fathers are held tend to be farther away from their families, have difficult procedures for scheduling a visit, and most are not able to accommodate child visitors (Swisher & Waller, 2008; Arditti, Lambert-Shute, & Joest, 2003). Given these visitation challenges, fathers and mothers might not be supportive of their children visiting them. With regard to mothers, there are studies that show that some mothers are not willing to engage with the incarcerated fathers of their children (Swisher & Waller, 2008). In their study, Swisher and Waller (2008) found that incarceration prevents father and child contact and that these nonresidential fathers support their children through informal agreements with their mothers (p. 1082).
Incarceration negatively impacts the incarcerated, their families, and the development of their children. A study by Geller et al. (2012) found that children with incarcerated parents develop increased attention problems and display greater bouts of aggression. They note that these effects are greater for father absence due to incarceration than other forms of father absence. Their study suggests that these children are at higher risk of poverty because the father is no longer able to provide for the family. In short, the negative impact of incarceration is not limited to fathers, but is widespread to children, partners, families, and communities.
This project is ongoing and began with a pilot grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico when I was a doctoral student in political science. The study went beyond the question of facilitators and barriers to involvement and examined if there were differences among Latino fathers as a result of nativity status. In other words, is there a difference between foreign-born and native-born statuses in relation to patterns of fatherhood engagement and the activities in which fathers engage? This project took place from January to July in 2017. I conducted a total of 12 interviews with fathers, eight of whom were native-born and four foreign-born. Of the eight native-born fathers five were previously incarcerated. The interviews took place in Bernalillo County, New Mexico. The sampling method used for this study was a purposive snowball sample, which means that participants were asked if they knew anyone else who might be willing to participate in the study and if they would provide names for other participants to be contacted for an interview. There was extensive outreach done to include as many participants as possible. Recruitment strategies included going to organizations in Albuquerque, such as Abriendo Puertas, an organization aimed at helping Latino immigrants with family life, and PB&J Fathers Building Futures, which is an organization aimed at reintegrating into society Latino fathers who were previously incarcerated. Other strategies included posting flyers in various locations, such as grocery stores, convenience stores, and tire shops in the South Valley area of Albuquerque to recruit participants. Interviews lasted from 35 minutes to over an hour in some cases, depending on how comfortable and willing the participant was to engage in conversation. Overall, the study opened my eyes as a researcher and made me consider policies that might better serve this segment of the community.
Results and Analysis
Some notable findings from my study have to do with the influences of the criminal justice system, poverty, and growing up in single parent households on the participants. The findings are based on interviews with the fathers who were previously incarcerated. To analyze the interviews, I used content analysis and sorted quotes thematically. There were four main themes: 1) barriers to educational involvement with children, 2) custody battles for children while fathers were incarcerated, 3) parental involvement with children while incarcerated, and 4) gender roles and child rearing. The impact of incarceration on their relationships with their children went beyond their time in prison and had consequences post release.
Barriers to Educational Involvement with Children
Participants mentioned how being previously incarcerated impacted their ability to engage with their children’s educational journey. For instance, participant #1 stated the following:
At school? Yeah, I went to most of their things. Some of the things I wasn’t like the volunteer or nothing because I’m a convicted felon. You know? But my daughter went to the aquarium and zoo, which I made sure my girl took those days off. So, we went together. And then, my son had little things at his class, and I went to two or three of them as a visitor and I brought stuff like juices and candies. For their birthdays, I brought [students in] the class things. My daughter wanted to take ring pops and I bought like 30 Ring Pops and took them in there for the kids. And then my son wanted Fun Dips. So, his class only had like 10 people, so I brought a bunch of Fun Dips for them.
This quote points to the efforts this participant made to engage with his children’s education despite the limitations imposed by his former prisoner status. Participant #1 added to this by saying,
“Yeah, I try to let them pick whatever they want. Like I told them cupcakes or whatever, but they wanted candy. So, I think it’s kind of easier too. Cake and all that stuff will make a mess, you know? They are probably just happy with the candy, and they got them at the end of the day so the teachers didn’t mind.”
This father could not engage in all activities at the school and, with regard to some events, he had to make sure his partner would take time off to engage in them with him or have her represent them as parents at these events. This father might not have been directly involved in all school activities, but he was involved in the process of giving the children treats to take to school and by asking them what types of treats they wanted to take for their birthdays.
Participant #3 described a similar experience with regard to school activities. He says “Uh, huh, I still do, every parent/teacher conference, I’ve always went to. Field trips? Not many, because they didn’t accept felons to go. So, I wasn’t able to go.” Asked his reaction to not being able to attend field trips this participant responded, “I Think that sucks because there’s times that I wanted to go with them, and I wasn’t able to.” While participant #3 might not have been able to attend field trips, he who engaged in the educational aspects of his children by attending parent/teacher conferences. The comments by these Latino fathers indicate they want to be present in their children’s lives and want to be engaged in the important years of a child’s development but confront barriers. These barriers are linked to having been incarcerated and to the current educational policies that prevent felons from attending certain school activities.
However, these Latino fathers see both sides of the coin. Participant #5 stated the following, “I was trying to go to my daughter’s field trip and stuff but since I have a criminal background, they… I can’t do it, you know, it’s just the way it is.” He added, “I can see it both ways. I mean, people change, but like I wouldn’t want somebody with a criminal record, depending on what it is or whatever, but you know what I mean, around my daughter.” This father understands that in the case of violent felons and those who have been charged with sexual abuse that he would not be comfortable with these individuals attending school field trips. However, an important question that arises is whether educational policies should be modified to differentiate felons based on the type of crime they have committed. This might be something to consider that could promote paternal engagement in their children’s educational experiences if non-violent offenders could attend more school activities.
Custody Battles while Incarcerated
In addition to the post release experiences that felons face as parents some of these fathers also faced problems during their time in prison. Participant #2 described the following experience:
Like when I was in prison, she … I was almost about to come out of prison, and she knew I was almost coming home, and she filed for sole custody of the child. While in there … while I had been in prison, I was in the federal prison, and I knew a lot of people. There was an attorney in there who actually studied law. I would go to him to help me with this paperwork, and we would fill out motions and we would send them to the court. The court would receive my motions, but I wasn’t able to work because I didn’t go through the Sheriff’s Department to serve the paperwork. So, that’s why I can’t … I had no access to that, but I did make the efforts to send motions for extreme circumstances. I was in prison, so I couldn’t be there [for the custody hearing]. And the court date was set five days [prior] to my release date, and I think it was a shady move because she knew I was about to be there. But she knew I was not going to be at the court. So, she pretty much won because I didn’t show. But my paperwork did show up and the judge did acknowledge that I did make the effort. They did give me the right to an appeal as soon as I got out. And sure enough, when I got out … as a matter of fact, while I was in there, she called me and told me I’m serving you papers.
He vividly discussed how his ex-partner was fighting for custody of their daughter while he was incarcerated. These men are at a disadvantage because they are not able to properly address custody battles while incarcerated. This participant was affected by this situation and details how even post incarceration his ex-partner still made it difficult for him to engage in his daughter’s life due to custody constraints.
Participant #2 stated:
Like with her, I was with her for four or five years and she left me when my daughter was one year old. And then things were bumpy between there and until my daughter was five years old. There were times when she wouldn’t even ever let me see my daughter. There was a full year that went by where I couldn’t communicate with her. She wouldn’t answer my calls. She just like took her away from us. You know what I mean? And she’s done some pretty bad stuff and I think … I don’t like to talk about people, you know, but I think she’s cruel and I don’t know for what reason. Until this day, I’m still trying to figure it out, what it is. I just don’t know. I don’t know what it is, and she doesn’t tell me. I don’t know what it is or what I did or what.
This is just one of the many situations this participant described during the interview; how his relationship with his ex-partner is rocky and makes it difficult for him to spend time with his child. In some cases, these are expected reactions by mothers who are less likely to want their children to engage with fathers who have been incarcerated (Geller et al, 2012).
Parenting while Incarcerated
Other concerns raised by these fathers have to do with their inability to parent their children and keep in touch with them while in prison (Geller et al. 2012). Participant # 3 discussed how he tried to stay engaged with his daughter:
No, no, it’s never changed the relationship because she knows I always … even when I was in prison, I was sending her money … Even when I was in prison, I ordered a pair of Jordans for her and sent them in the mail. She got them. I sent her 200 dollars in the mail, you know. I was always sending her something. It was because I didn’t know how she was or what they were doing, you know. But I was calling her every day. So, I had plenty of calling cards and everything, so it wasn’t bad, you know. I didn’t have any help from the street in here, but I made that work too.
Even though this father was incarcerated he still managed to stay engaged, to a limited extent, with his daughter. He maintained this relationship by sending her money and gifts for her birthday.
Another example of how fathers tried to maintain their relationships with their children or to parent from afar is depicted with participant #5 in the following response to my question, “Going back to the time you had to leave or split with your daughter’s mom. Did that make it harder for you to get involved with her later?” He replied, “No, I mean no. I talked to her the whole time I was in prison. When I got out I started seeing my daughter all the time … It’s just me and her [mother] just didn’t work out. But I still see my daughter whenever I want to and stuff.” For this participant, incarceration did not stop him from trying to be as involved with his daughter as much as he could, but it does highlight the barriers that mothers may set in place to prevent the development of these relationships.
Gender Roles and Child Rearing
Another dimension that is important to highlight is how being previously incarcerated impacts not only employment prospects but also child rearing and daycare needs. For instance, participant #1 discussed the difficulties in finding employment that has a flexible schedule and a supervisor who understands that on occasion he is the one who needs to stay home with the children. He also addressed the negative connotations that stem from societal norms that chastise former prisoners. He said the following:
And so, they would try to tell her like “Oh, does he work?” She’ll be like “He takes care of the kids.” That’s a hard enough job. They’ll be like, “What? That loser don’t work? You just take care of him?” She’ll be like, “I’d like to see you try to watch two [children]. A four- and five-year-old all day and deal with them and all that stuff.” You know? She’s like “He does work actually on my days off over here.” I was working two days out of the week from 8 to 4. But now that it’s summer and she had the baby, I’ve been able to work a little more. Plus, I’m on drug court, you know? So, I have to do counseling. I have to take random drug tests. I have to check in and I have to see the judge. I have pending cases. So, I have a lot of stuff also that I can’t just start work somewhere and be like “Oh, I have to go do a UA today,” or “I have to go see the judge. I have to go see my PO. I have counseling at 2.” They’re not just going to be all flexible with me when I’m first being hired, you know? So, that kind of irritates me that they always talk trash about that. But I always tell her, if you want to stay home with the kids, go ahead. But I can’t really work full-time with little kids at home because like I said, I don’t have a mom or somebody just to go drop them off at. There’s nobody. We would have to pay daycare and as much money as she makes, we don’t qualify for anything. They would want to charge us full price.
This detailed quote vividly taps into issues that Latino fathers face after being released from prison. They have difficulty finding stable employment, which halts their reintegration into society. In the case of this father, he had to rely on his partner to be the breadwinner while he was the caretaker. One of the hardest issues with this is that in today’s economy it is much harder to live on a single earner income or in a household where income is lower.
These men also face prejudices for being stay-at-home dads. Participant #1 continued by adding:
And that’s one of the things too. Like women want all these rights and want to work and stuff too, but then pretty much, people’s … I don’t know how to say it, but what they expect is like you said, the traditional [role]. They expect the man to work and the woman to be at home. Whenever they see me like pretty much a full-time dad, yeah, they’re like “Oh, look at him. He’s just using his chick” is what they pretty much try to say. I’m like that’s not the case at all. I took care of her pretty much until my son was four. You know what I mean? And then, I caught all kinds of charges and that’s when she started working when I was in jail. She got a good job and she likes her job.
This participant throughout our interview stated that he is supportive of his partner and knows that because of his felony record he is in this situation. He also commented that his partner is understanding of the fact that he has to stay home, but it is family members from his and her side of the family that criticize him for not being a provider. This situation signals how gender norms are continuously perpetuated in society by both men and women and families.
As stated above, these fathers were recruited through the PB&J Fathers Building Futures (FBF) organization in Albuquerque which aims at reintegrating into society fathers recently released from prison. This program is unique in that it is run by former prisoners which provides greater understanding of what these individuals face once released from prison. This program intervenes before these fathers are released from prison. Six to nine months prior to their release these fathers participate in parenting classes, coached visits with their children, and counseling services. Later on, the program provides employment and the development of skills that can be used to secure employment or even start their own business. It also provides these fathers leadership skills that will benefit them in the labor market. Some of the involvement at this organization includes creating handmade cutting boards or other products, such as table stands, that are sold to the public. Woodworking and carpentry skills are trade skills that can benefit these fathers in the pursuit of employment. Other work these men perform besides woodwork includes car detailing and power washing. Still, hectic probation schedules and drug court remain challenges for these men in finding stable and flexible employment after leaving prison.
Participant #1 provided a good description of how this organization has been beneficial for him. He stated:
They’re real supportive, you know what I mean, with everything. Like they’re willing to write my PO, my judge, my other case lawyer … letters and everything just to give support and to let them know what’s going on with me here and how good I’ve been doing. That type of stuff. I’m able to meet with my case worker once a week just to see how things are going and what I’m going to do next. All this type of stuff. Like pretty much everything I just told you, like my [case worker] … she knows everything, my schedule and how I’m home with the kids.
This program has created a lot of opportunities for these fathers. For fathers, such as participant #1, who is on probation and needs to complete it in order to avoid returning to prison, employment opportunities that allow him to have a flexible schedule to see a probation officer or attend drug court are imperative for successful reintegration and for the reduction of recidivism rates. This program allows fathers who have young children to bring them to the organization if they cannot secure daycare and allows them to take time off to pick them up from school and take them to doctors’ appointments, which are important demands parents with young children experience.
Another father, participant #5, discussed how this program benefited him and his family. He said:
It just helped me start living life right. It just … like I said, I got out of prison and started working here. It just kept me working and out of trouble. I worked my way up from minimum wage, only 20 hours a week. Now I’m one of the main guys here. I run the mobile unit. That’s what I was setting up interviews for. I need to hire a team for myself so that we could … go off-site to different contracts and that’s what I’m in charge of here. So, I mean it taught me more responsibility being in a management position and good skills on how to run a crew and get this to work and stuff.
This program and others like it help fathers by providing them with work experience and employable skills to avoid falling back into the carceral state. But this participant highlights how the program moves them up the work ladder by providing promotions and management skill sets they need to succeed. Some of these fathers obtain permanent employment at the organization or are given greater work responsibilities, similar to those of Participant #5, who continued his account by discussing other barriers that prevent him from securing employment:
Plus, I have tattoos everywhere. People say that I look intimidating and stuff. I don’t try to be. But like whenever I’m doing the interviews for work … I don’t know, it’s just hard for me to get a job. You know, this place gave me a chance. So, I’d like to give back and give someone else that chance that I was given, and you know, see where it takes them.
Here we see how public perceptions of felons impacts their ability to find employment due to having tattoos and how their criminal records consistently become barriers to successful reintegration. But most importantly, these individuals also face the possibility of returning to prison if they do not find housing or full-time employment, which are often conditions for maintaining parole.
Other programs that are also beneficial are fatherhood programs in which prisoners can participate while incarcerated that facilitate their reintegration. A brief from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) (2010) discusses several state level programs that promote father reintegration while they are still in prison. Similar to some of the services that FBF provides to incarcerated parents prior to release, there are other states with correctional facilities that also provide prisoners parenting/coparenting classes, child visitation opportunities, marriage courses, and many more supportive services in order to facilitate their reintegration upon release and to improve child health and developmental outcomes. The report from the DHHS provides evidence that these programs are beneficial for fathers who are former prisoners, their families, and the community at large.
The report evaluates Marriage and Family Strengthening Grants for Incarcerated and Reentering Fathers and their Partners (MFS-IP) to assess their benefits to the participants, in this case the fathers. Some states that received these grants and implemented several of these programs include: New Jersey, Minnesota, Tennessee, Michigan, South Dakota, Ohio, California, New York, New Hampshire, Indiana, and Maryland. For the most part, these programs have been successful and integrated men in the process of constructively engaging with their children, but some programs need to be tailored for men who are incarcerated. Overall, these programs focused on promoting high self-esteem among children, disciplining children properly, behavioral goals, stimulating independence, family meetings, problem-solving skills, communication skills, parenting upon release, co-parenting, and rebuilding trust with children, among many others. These programs also vary in instruction style as they are not all based on lecturing parents but on engaging them through role playing, games, storytelling, and reflection. By involving fathers in these types of educational experiences there was greater responsiveness by those engaging in these programs.
However, one of the biggest barriers programs like these face is sustained funding. These programs have proven effective, but funding challenges make it difficult to continue them. FBF, according to NM News Port, received funding for a few years from DHHS, but funding was not sustained by the agency. This prompted FBF to find creative ways to fund the organization. Some of the funding is received from the purchases made from selling some of the woodwork products. Other funding is secured through donations, etc. But in order to expand the number of individuals FBF and other programs can serve more money is needed to pay those developing this curriculum and conducting the classes.
Besides programs that help fathers who are incarcerated or recently released from prison, emphasis must be placed on changing sentencing practices for non-violent offenders. Non-violent offenders sometimes face harsher sentences than violent or sexual offenders. Also, understanding how post-release requirements create hardships is important. For instance, many of these individuals, as stated in the interviews, find it very difficult to secure employment, which if not able to do so can return them to prison. Thus, when examining ways to improve the chances of these fathers, there needs to be criminal justice reform that takes into consideration the negative impact on the individual and also on families.
Discussion and Conclusion
Several conclusions can be drawn from this study. For one, negative stereotypes of fathers of color and those who were previously incarcerated are questioned. The fathers in this study care about their children and are not disengaged with their children. On the contrary, these men want to be more involved with their children but face barriers from institutions, society, and in some cases from their own families. To summarize, with regard to institutions, some barriers include educational policies that prevent former prisoners from attending school field trips, courts that impose several requirements upon release that may contribute to recidivism, and correctional facilities that do not provide access to parenting courses tailored for incarcerated men nor visitation services that can accommodate children. When examining the role of society and its impact on the reintegration of these men other issues include negative stereotypes about felons or former prisoners. For example, the fact that one of the study participants had tattoos created immediate negative reactions and stereotyping. These are issues that several formerly incarcerated individuals face, as well as regular members of society that have similar appearances. Another barrier these individuals face has to do with unsupportive family members or non-cooperative partners. As one of the participants noted, his former partner tried to take sole custody of his child while he was in prison. This creates obstacles for these men to be able to continue to have a constructive relationship with their children during their incarceration and after they are released. Thus, even with parenting programs or child visitation programs, if family members and partners do not constructively engage in the programs, there is little possibility of success for the former prisoners.
Based on these findings in New Mexico, there is a need to have better policies and improved funding for programs which reduce recidivism rates. As well, it is important to promote better child outcomes in order to reduce the probability of children also falling victim to the same cycles of incarceration as their parents. A whole host of factors are at play that negatively impact fathers who are former prisoners and which promote and maintain cycles of social disadvantage among future generations. The movement for criminal justice reform must address the needs of incarcerated fathers and their families to break the cycles of social disadvantage.
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