VA Maryland Health Care System
Fathers’ Group Seeks to Reverse Negative Cycles
For Veterans Kevin Fletcher, Kevin Johnson, and James Goodwin, the Father's Group at the VA Maryland Health Care System has become one of the highpoints of their treatment for substance use. The group, which is part of an intensive outreach program, offers Veteran fathers a more holistic perspective to recovery, helping them to improve relationships with their children and families as they struggle to overcome the demons of addiction. The Veterans in the Father's Group hosted the "Father's Day 2011" program on June 16, from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at the Baltimore VA Medical Center and invited a national fatherhood expert to deliver the keynote address.
Joseph T. Jones, CEO of the Center for Urban Families and a panel member of Fatherhood and Healthy Families Taskforce of President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, delivered the keynote address. About a dozen Veteran fathers also presented their perspectives on the need to honor their own fathers, change and improve their legacies, modify their roles as fathers to be more than "providers," and embrace other roles such as mentors, listening boards and role models.
The theme for the event was "Changing Cycles," as the men seek to change the cycle of addiction, and "old school" patterns of thinking and behavior, such as substituting communicating and relating with their children for corporal punishment and providing a consistent presence in their children's and sometimes grandchildren's lives, rather than absenteeism.
"I'm honored to be here, talking to Veterans the same time that President Obama is hosting Veterans at the White House to discuss their roles as fathers," Jones said. Admitting to Veteran fathers in the audience that he is "a recovering knucklehead," Jones opened his keynote speech by chronicling his own addiction to and recovery from hard drugs beginning when he was only 13 years old, which instigated a long criminal record and robbed him of any contact with a son born at the height of his addiction. "Jail is not a deterrent to drug addiction. I can tell you that. Any drug addict can tell you that. When I was addicted and in jail, I could devise all kinds of ways to get drugs," he said. To kick the habit, Jones enrolled in a rehabilitation program that included a year-long stint at Spring Grove, an inpatient psychiatric facility. As he became clean, he realized that in order to remain clean, he had to change the company he kept—his friends and associates, all who used drugs—had to go. "I also had to create new relationships with healthy people who were doing the things I wanted to do, and I had to reconnect with my son and that meant getting out of my comfort zone."
Jones, who stayed for the entire event and listened to Veteran fathers discuss their recovery journey, also said that "men and women react to things and communicate in different ways and no child benefits when they are being raised only by their mothers," he said.
"I spoke to Father's Group back when it first started, and it is gratifying to see how far it has come and how much it has grown over the years. The last time I spoke, the participants were few, and it was in a small room like a therapy group," Jones said, noting that the event is now held in an auditorium with nearly 80 participants in attendance.
Army Veteran Goodwin, 57, grew up in Lexington Terrace working alongside his own father as a Baltimore A-Rabber, a street merchant who sells fruits and vegetables from a horse-drawn carriage. His beloved childhood horse, Lamuel, would come running to his whistle as if he were a dog. Goodwin joined the Army at age 17 in 1971 and worked as a supply clerk until his discharge in 1975, and then returned to A-Rabbing, a job he loved. But to manage stress and problems, Goodwin began relying on drinking and drugs as a coping mechanisms. "I wasn't a good father," he admits, but now that he's clean, he wants to change that by making amends with his adult children so he can be a relevant force in theirs and their children's lives.
"It's not easy to make amends. Sometimes people won't let you, and I know I can't force myself on my children, but I won't give up. I'll prove that I'm there for them now, even if I wasn't in the past. The Father's Group is helping me to do this," he said, noting that his relationship with his son has improved, that he is a positive influence in his grandchildren's lives, and he continues to pursue a relationship with his daughter.
Air Force Veteran Fletcher, 49, whose children are teens, credits the Father's Group for learning how to change both the cycles of substance use that prompted a temporary abandonment of his parenting role and the past cycle of parenting he mimicked from own father's fear-based approach. "My father was a do-as-I-say kind of father, and we feared him. He'd say, ‘Don't go around that corner,' but I'd then be interested in why we couldn't go around that corner. After I asked, he'd say, ‘because I said so' and I want to explain to my children why to avoid going around the corner." Fletcher, like others in the Father's Group, finds himself struggling with a sense of guilt for being absent, which can sometimes interfere with his ability to maintain sound boundaries. He sometimes finds it difficult not succumbing to the pressure to give in, especially when his teens push for permissions for certain activities.
For Army Veteran Kevin Johnson, 52, the Father's Group has been instrumental in reconciling with his only child, a 14 year-old daughter. "I lost two great jobs and my family as a result of drug use, and the shame and guilt that comes with that keeps people running away from those they love most," he said, noting that he was the baby of eight children in a family of high standards. He'd kicked his addiction and remained drug-free for five years before a relapse sent him into a downward spiral. "It wasn't until after that relapse when I asked for help did I begin to work on the PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] issues. The Father's Group has been so helpful because they assisted me to take an honest look at myself, and it presented different perspectives that I hadn't considered," he said.
The Father's Group at the VA Maryland Health Care System's Intensive Outreach Program offers a more holistic perspective for men struggling to kick substance abuse issues, and part of the treatment includes improving their relationships with their children and families. It is an elective psychoeducational group that began in 1999. Since its inception, Group members have made presentations to VA clinics and programs and at Fatherhood Conventions, educating others about fatherhood and recovery. Mark Arenas, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the VA Maryland Health Care System, leads the Father's Group, which includes Veterans from all war eras who come to the VA either expressly for the treatment of substance abuse, PTSD and traumatic brain injury and are first referred to the Addictions Program and then to the Father's Group.