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Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department employee Jery Marquez oversees the Healthy Dads program, which provides group and one-on-one support for fathers so they can build positive, lasting relationships with their children.
The program also provides education through a 10-week class, "Fatherhood and Personal and Professional Development," that follows curriculum from the National Center for Fathering and Connections to Success. The program, which is provided through a grant from the Kansas Department for Children and Families, is offered at the Douglas County Jail, Lawrence Community Shelter and Health Department.
Since the Healthy Dads program began in September 2016, 426 fathers have participated in the program. Of those, 319, or 75 percent, have been fathers at the Douglas County Jail.
According to research, children without a father figure in their lives are more likely to experience increased rates of poverty, teen pregnancy, crime, substance abuse, poor health and emotional problems.
“We can see that when dads are involved, children thrive. Children are more confident and have higher self-esteem,” Marquez said. “When dads are not involved, children tend to drop out of school, develop behavioral disorders, use drugs and alcohol and get involved in gangs. They also tend to become pregnant at an earlier age.”
While serving time in the Douglas County Jail in fall 2016, Joe Ricley signed up to participate in the Healthy Dads program, but was only able to attend one class because of illness and visitations.
About a month later, Ricley called Marquez. He was out of jail and ready to focus on his children instead of the toxic relationship he had been in for seven years. That call was a turning point for the father of two young children. "I finally realized that I needed to move on for me and my children. I knew that’s what would be best for us,” he said.
Ricely earned a certificate for completing the Healthy Dads program at the Health Department in December 2016.
During a recent interview, Ricley, 44, described the Healthy Dads program as a blessing because he finally found the support he needed from Marquez, who also is a father, and other dads in the program. “The program helped me realize where I was and how to take small steps to get where I wanted to be. This program helped me integrate back into the community,” he said. “It provided me with the tools and skills that I needed to be more successful.”
Ricley said he now has a better paying job and is able to spend time with his children. They enjoy playing in the park, cooking and going to the movies. “Time is too short in life. The kids are ultimately the ones who suffer if you don’t do the right things,” he said.
Marquez said he wishes all of the fathers at the Douglas County Jail had the same opportunity to participate in the Healthy Dads program, but that’s not the case because fathers who are eligible to participate often get transferred to other county jails due to lack of space. “I’ve had many instances where dads were coming to the class and then all of sudden, they are gone. A few months later, they are back and sorry they missed the previous classes,” Marquez said. “Continuity is very important because there is a flow to the lessons. When they come back, they’ve missed lessons. It’s stressful for them and us.”
Marquez said the transfer makes an already strenuous situation even more difficult for inmates because they often don’t have access to legal services, family members and programs like Healthy Dads. “It’s affecting them a lot,” said Marquez, who has received letters from dads serving time elsewhere. “There are guys who really want to come to the classes and finish the program, but they can’t because they’ve been farmed out.”
Marquez said many of the dads that he works with at the jail are from fatherless homes. “It usually becomes a vicious cycle — from generation to generation — unless we stop it.”