VALPARAISO — The men were asked their favorite memories of their children.

Kicking a soccer ball around, one guy said.

Halloween, another responded.

Playing catch, said another.

Some of these men hadn't seen their kids in months. Some don't see them at all. And they won't be spending Father's Day with them.

But they had the memories.

"I take her on bike rides around town and show her places I used to hang out," said James Hoyne, 31, of Valparaiso, an inmate at the Porter County Jail, talking about his 11-year-old daughter. "In the springtime I take her to Ogden Gardens, where it has all the flowers."

The men wore ratty green jumpsuits, Crocs and sandals, wristbands identifying themselves. The cellblock had a musty, sterile smell.

"Those are the things your kids will hold onto," said Ron Goodaker, who was teaching the Nurturing Fathers class late last month at the jail.

The guys were learning how to be better dads. They were picking up such skills as disciplining, expressing emotions in a positive way and cultivating empathy. They all hoped to reunite with their children after getting released.

Like the Porter County inmates, many dads won't see their kids this Father's Day. In America, 1 in 3 children, or a total of 24 million, live without their biological father in the home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The effects are ill and lasting.

According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, a child who grows up in a home without a father has twice the risk of dying before the age of 1, a four times greater risk of poverty, seven times the risk of getting pregnant as a teen and twice the likelihood of becoming obese. That kid also is more likely to have behavioral problems, commit crimes, go to prison, abuse drugs and alcohol and experience abuse and neglect.

"We're trying to end the cycle," said Jim Burns, executive director of Family Focus, a Valparaiso social services agency that is training men across the Region to be more present, compassionate dads. "The father needs to get to know himself before he can father his child."

The road to reunification

Eric Steighner has gotten to know himself very well over the past eight months. One evening in late May, he sat on a puffy, brown couch in a green-walled counseling room at Respite House, a Valparaiso halfway house for people with addiction. His ex-wife, Lori Steighner, sat across from him in a blue-velvet wing chair.

"This is my favorite lesson: escalating and de-escalating," said Goodaker, the parenting instructor.

Once a week for two hours, Eric has been taking the fathering class, in the hopes of gaining custody of his 4-year-old son. He also has two daughters, 15 and 11, who live with Lori. She and Eric were going over an exercise about co-parenting.

"Conflict is normal," Goodaker said. "It's all about communication."

He said the vast majority of arguments is not over a specific issue, but the way the words are delivered.

"Sometimes it gets frustrating because I feel like I'm being misunderstood," Eric said.

"It's not what you're saying that's being misunderstood," Goodaker said. "It's the presentation of what you're saying that's being misunderstood. You're not angry, you're not criticizing and condemning. You're just trying to make a point."

"I think he just has a sharp-tones voice," Lori said. "We think that Eric's getting angry."

Kids confuse criticism with yelling, Goodaker said. Parents have to teach them the difference.

Eric doesn't live with any of his children. He resides in a studio apartment at Respite House, where he does maintenance. He stayed there for several months following his release from prison. He has been doing the class since October.

"It's helping my relationships with people who care about me," said Eric, a tattooed, intense 39-year-old with a close-cropped haircut. "I've learned that not everyone parents the same way. You just have to communicate about it."

His relationship with his teenage daughter is the most strained, he said. She was old enough to understand what was going on when he was absent. He's frustrated their impasse hasn't been solved.

Lori said she has noticed a change in Eric.

"I think he's learning how to have a positive attitude toward a lot of situations in life," she said. "He's learned how to truly be a better father — how to be a father — and a good one. He's not the same person he used to be. He's built a lot of respect from people, trust."

"I'm trying to rebuild my life and rebuild my relationship with my kids," he said.

A focus on fathers

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Burns started the fatherhood program in the late '90s before funding for it dried up. He rejuvenated it about five years ago after the state showed interest in paying for fathering classes. With the demand for foster homes not keeping up with supply — caused in part by the growing opioid epidemic that is getting many mothers incarcerated — the Indiana Department of Child Services is trying to place children with relatives, a dad whenever possible.

Family Focus also works with DCS to give required, 12-hour fathering classes to men accused of abuse and neglect in Porter, LaPorte and several other surrounding counties. The agency helps guys find housing, write resumes, establish paternity, get into substance abuse treatment. In 2017, 167 men completed the fathering program.

Burns got the idea to teach the class in the Porter County Jail two years ago after reading a story in The Times about the facility's God Pod, a rehabilitation unit with a religious element.

"We have to put an emphasis on fathers," said Ellis Dumas, Lake County regional manager for DCS. "Children who have had father support have been known to have less behavioral issues and behavioral problems, and better attachment emotionally."

The men often still have rights to their child, but the mother or mother's family haven't let them be around the kid.

"A lot of dads have been left out," Goodaker said. "You work with dads and they haven't seen the child in years. I've got one who hasn't seen his child in 10 years."

"There's so many dads that just give up," said Jerome Kelly, another of the program's facilitators. "They say, 'Well, at least I'm paying for them.' There's so much more to parenting."

In Indiana, the gender of the parent isn't supposed to be a deciding factor in custody disputes, said Burton Padove, a family law attorney in Highland. The problem, he said, sometimes comes when a child is born out of wedlock; in that case, the father has to fill out a paternity affidavit and submit a genetic test within 60 days of the child's birth. Padove said dads often miss this step, and custody goes to the mom.

"Other than that, the law is pretty straightforward," he said. "The law is going to look at what's in the best interest of the child, no matter what sex the parent is."

Padove said it used to be assumed that children were better off with their mothers. But he said men are more likely to be the custodial parent than they were 20 years ago.

"You'll look at who's the parent who participates at the PTA meeting, who's the parent whose taking the child to Little League or Scouting, who takes them to the doctor's visits," he said.

A change in attitude

The men at the Porter County Jail were attempting to break a pattern. Most of the guys who've done the Nurturing Fathers program grew up without a father figure. Most of the ones who did had a poor relationship with him.

Goodaker, the instructor, said maybe about a fifth of the class members speak positively about their fathers; even in those cases, the dads were in and out of their sons' lives, often in and out of jail.

Jamie Jones, a 35-year-old inmate from Hobart, said his father taught him pride and the importance of having a work ethic "but the punishment was too far." "It put a lot of anger in my heart," he said, noting that he wants to be different with his own kids, two of three of whom he lives with.

As he stared at the concrete floor, Tristan Landrum, 22, of Valparaiso, pondered how he got to this point, as a parent, as a person. He has custody of his 3-year-old son; he has a 1-year-old daughter he doesn't see. Being a young parent, he said, the class has taught him a lot.

"I've definitely seen where I've gone wrong in parenting," he said. "I've gotten mad and I've taken it out on him. Because that's what was done to me. ... And I'm trying to fix that so I don't pass it on to my kids like it got passed on to me."

The men were in the jail's therapeutic community unit, a drug rehab for inmates. They were largely locked up because of crimes related to their substance abuse addiction.

Goodaker told the inmates to be the fathers they would like their sons to become, the kind of men they would want their daughters to marry.

"Dads like you are often unnoticed, unsupported," Burns, who brought the program to the jail, told the group. "You're an inspiration because you're willing to change your life around."

The guys were asked some good rules to have around the house.

"No cussing?" said Erik Grant, a 26-year-old inmate from Roselawn.

Goodaker asked him he would enforce that.

"When I was young, they put soap in my mouth," Grant said. "I don't think you're supposed to do that anymore."

Guards walked in and out of the white brick-walled room. Light shone in through the barred windows of the cells.

"Profanity is a symptom of disrespect, so focus on what the real issue is," Goodaker said. "Anything else?"

"No hitting," Grant said.

"Hitting doesn't solve anything, so you have to give them other tools," Goodaker said. "Sometimes changing behavior isn't so much about attacking behavior as it is about teaching a different behavior."

The men learned how to articulate their emotions productively. Crying is OK. "If they can't express their feelings, how are their kids going to express their feelings?" said Kelly, the other facilitator. "Everything is internalized until the soda bottle is shaken up and you pop that top off and everything comes out all at once."

"It's OK to be sad," Landrum said. "I don't have to hide it, just because I'm a male."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.