Healing Through Forgiveness: How to Reconnect Runaway and Homeless Youth With Their Fathers

At Youth Shelters, an agency that serves homeless, runaway, at-risk, and street youth in northern New Mexico, about 80 percent of the residents of the transitional living program have no relationship with their fathers, and many don’t want to start one.

“A lot are from immigrant families, and their family members may have gone back to Mexico,” says Program Director Spring LePak. “For some, their fathers are in prison, absent, or the youth may not know who their fathers are.”

This speaks to the difficulty in getting runaway, homeless, and at-risk young people to reconnect with their fathers. But by creating safe and casual opportunities for engagement, youth-serving agencies can overcome some of these obstacles.

“Our goal is to help them develop natural supports and positive adult relationships where they can,” says LePak.  “It is part of the healing process for them to learn to forgive and learn that their dad is human.”

Chances to Talk

When youth do want to contact their fathers, Youth Shelters’ counselors discuss what needs to happen to repair the broken relationship. The youth may send letters or begin a dialogue over the phone. Youth workers help prepare them for what it will be like to reintegrate into the family and teach them positive coping skills for when the meetings occur.

In June 2014, Youth Shelters partnered with Santa-Fe-based Reel Fathers, an organization that has held Dads and Kids Movie Nights for the last six years. It’s a chance for parents and kids to watch a fatherhood-themed movie together, then participate in creative activities and a group discussion to explore issues raised by the film.

Youth Shelters and Reel Fathers recently co-launched a similar initiative, Campfire Movie Nights, which serves Youth Shelters’ Transitional Living Program.

It gives the youth the opportunity to explore painful issues in their history in a safe and supportive environment,” says Reel Fathers Executive Director Deborah Boldt. “They talk about what they saw in the film that had meaning. It gives them a way to talk about things that are very difficult to talk about.”

 “It’s a stereotype that men don’t talk or don’t want to communicate,” says Reel Fathers Founder and President Allan Shedlin. “My experience is the absolute opposite. Within a minute they are immediately talking about themselves and their situation.”

Low-Pressure is Best

The Reel Fathers approach highlights another important lesson: you have to create low-pressure situations for getting young people to connect with their fathers. Jonathan Monsalve, Director of New York City’s Midtown Community Court Fatherhood and Workforce Development Program, said most of the time the fathers do want relationships with their children, but they don’t know how to reconnect.

“We hear, ‘I wish I could help, but I don’t know how,’” Monsalve says. “They may say something like, ‘I don’t want my son to go down the path I did, but I don’t know how to reach him.’”

To facilitate meaningful father/child relationships, the Fatherhood Program at Midtown Community Court collects donations to buy tickets to pro-family events like sports games. They also work with the New York City Public Library to record fathers reading a book and send those recordings to their kids.

“Anything to jumpstart the relationship or start a conversation,” Monsalve said. “Whatever the reason may be that they haven’t had a relationship, we help them understand that there is still time to forge a connection.”

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