Justice News

Attorney General Eric Holder at the Fatherhood Town Hall
Atlanta, GA
United States
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Thank you, Mike. I’d also like to thank you, Dr. Franklin, and Morehouse College for hosting this important conversation. Before I became Attorney General I was a proud member of the board of the Morehouse Medical School. And I also want to express my appreciation to my fellow panelists here this evening.

As Attorney General, I serve as our nation’s chief law enforcement officer. In that role, I have the responsibility of protecting our national security and promoting public safety. And yet, there are days when these responsibilities, as grave as they are, seem manageable in comparison with the awesome responsibilities that I face as a father of three children. To me, being a responsible and engaged father is every bit as demanding, and every bit as important, as being the Attorney General of the United States.

Let’s be clear -- a father’s role in the life of a child is irreplaceable. I know this not just from the studies and the research that I’ve read and that I will share with you later, but from my own experiences parenting two teenage daughters and a 12-year-old son. And believe me, when I’m not up late thinking about how I can help to keep our nation safe, I’m up late thinking about how I can help my kids. It is both my commitment to public safety and my concern for my own children -- and for all the other children throughout this country -- that brings me here tonight.

I’m honored to be joined here this evening by fellow dads and leaders focused on fatherhood. In the course of our discussions, I hope we will be open and honest enough to ask ourselves tough questions -- father to father, parent to parent -- about what our communities and the federal government can do to strengthen our families and support those fathers who are trying to do the right thing.

Tonight is my second visit to Morehouse College as Attorney General. I was first here in March of this year for the unveiling of a portrait of my late sister-in-law Vivian Malone Jones, one of the two courageous college students who integrated the University of Alabama in 1963 and the first black graduate of that institution.. During that visit, we honored the impact that Vivian had on our nation’s history. She understood that the choice she made was not the easy one. But she also understood that to realize a better society, a better world, individuals must take responsibility for changing the situations that they cannot accept. It is that same sense of responsibility that I want to talk about tonight.

Those of us who are fathers have opportunities -- big and small everyday -- to take responsibility in the lives of our children. We can spend time with our sons and daughters, we can help with their homework, we can teach them to play well together, we can get to know their friends and classmates, and we can serve as role models for how to interact with others and how to handle the challenges of life. Stated simply, we can – and we must – assume the responsibility for being involved in our children’s lives. And by being involved, and by being good role models, we each have the opportunity to impact our kids’ lives, as well as the future of our nation, in profound ways.

If we are truly to call ourselves "men" we must recognize that a defining characteristic of that word is the care and nurturing of those we bring into this world. You simply cannot be a real man if you don’t do all that you can to care for those who have the greatest right to depend on you. We cannot leave this awesome responsibility to the women in our lives and in our communities who too often labor alone, taking care of our sons and daughters. This must end.

I don’t pretend that this is easy, especially for fathers who have been incarcerated. So I come here with great respect for those of you who have made some mistakes, but have chosen to appear here tonight because you know that someone else is counting on you.

People sometimes make bad choices. As a result, they end up in prison or jail. But we can’t permit incarceration of a parent to punish an entire family.

More than 1.5 million American children have fathers in prison. More than half of these children are African American. And we know that children of incarcerated parents suffer from: the physical and emotional separation; the stigma associated with having a parent detained; the loss of financial support; and the disruption caused by introducing new caregivers into a child’s life, no matter how well meaning those caregivers may be. As a result, children of incarcerated parents often struggle with anxiety, depression, learning problems, and aggression, undermining their own chances of future success. We know that in many cases maintaining relationships with their parents during incarceration can improve the lives of children, and yet too often our policies have failed to support these relationships.

Even when fathers are released from prison and return to their families, we have failed to properly support family reunification. We don’t adequately address such pressing issues as the role that these fathers will play in their children’s lives. And yet, if we care about what happens to these children, their families, and their communities – if we care about public safety – we have to help these men play a central role in their children’s lives.

Research reveals that incarcerated men who maintain strong family ties while behind bars are more successful when they are released. They have an easier time finding jobs and staying off drugs. In fact, a recent study done for the Department of Health and Human Services found that people who were married or in committed relationships were half as likely to use drugs or commit new crimes after they were released from incarceration.

There’s a theme here: family connections improve public safety, and responsible and engaged parenting improve public safety. It’s time we started to think about this issue in that context.

It may surprise you to learn that approximately 700,000 people return to their communities from prison every year. Seven hundred thousand. And yet, only a small percentage of these people receive any help preparing for their return to their communities. Surely this failure must play a role in the fact that two-thirds of men released from prison are re-arrested within three years of their release.

Those fortunate enough to get help typically receive temporary housing, job training, and substance abuse or mental health treatment. Of course, all of these supports are critical to successful reintegration. But until recently we haven’t paid enough attention to the family, which is remarkable, given that we know that family involvement improves an individual’s chances at success.

But we’ve finally seen the light. We are now using science and evidence supported policies, not political dogma, to tackle this issue. This year, the Department of Justice awarded $28 million under the Second Chance Act for reentry programs. These programs include grants to 15 states that will help formerly incarcerated people successfully transition back into their communities. These grants include parenting training inside facilities and reunification programs for when people are released from incarceration.

I’m happy to note that in Tennessee, the city of Memphis has hired a family liaison who works with formerly incarcerated people to help them reconnect with family members when they return to town. In South Dakota, the Department of Corrections has launched a Fatherhood and Families Program to address the challenges faced by incarcerated fathers and to promote healthy relationships. And in Oregon, Marion County is deploying an evidence-based parenting curriculum called "Parenting Inside Out," and a family reunification curriculum called "Restoring Relationships." These are just three examples of how we’re shifting resources to support family reunification for formerly incarcerated people and their families.

Similarly, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded 13 grants to encourage responsible fatherhood and to help strengthen family ties among men returning from incarceration. Those programs are undergoing a national evaluation, and the results of that evaluation will help us ensure that we are implementing data-driven, evidence-based programs that work to keep families together and communities safer.

In the meantime, we’re learning some important lessons. We’re seeing encouraging results from parenting programs in prison. Men who participate in these programs are more positive about their role as fathers, and they have more frequent contact with their children. Relationship intervention programs have also shown promise in improving communication between formerly incarcerated parents and their children.

But challenges remain. Successful family programs demand close coordination between criminal justice and human service agencies, and those groups aren’t always on the same page. Often the distance between the family’s home and the prison makes contact difficult. And prison rules do not always allow for the best visits. These are institutional problems, but they are not insurmountable problems. And given the stakes, they are worth our focus and energy.

Many of you are struggling with these challenges but also finding innovative solutions; and I look forward to hearing your stories this evening. We should celebrate your personal successes, of course, but we should also look for ways to replicate them for others. In doing so we will leave a legacy for our children, and our children’s children, of which we can all be proud.

Thank you once again for welcoming me here this evening. Let us not be afraid tonight to ask hard questions and to face difficult truths. Let us support one another. That is the only way we can make real progress.

I now look forward to hearing from many of you as you share your knowledge, your insights, and your personal experiences.

Thank you.