The sounds of youthful voices sounding out words and singing the alphabet song are not typical at the Schenectady County Jail.
But there they were Monday, four children on one side of the plastic dividing wall, and their incarcerated father on the other side.
Adding to the crowd: four tutors — one for each child — and two caseworkers.
Their goal was to help the children learn reading skills that might have fallen to the wayside amid the stress of going into foster care. The children are divided into several foster homes while their father, Carlos Hernandez-Diaz, faces charges of arson and reckless endangerment.
Tutors from Reading Is Fun, the program started last year by Al Magid, have volunteered to tutor at the jail to help inmates learn how to read to their children. But it has been a logistical nightmare. Inmates move in and out, heading to prison or other institutions. And they need the support of someone on the outside to bring in the children.
Among the most common problems is that the other parent often has an order of protection. That parent can’t be present while the inmate is with the children.
After months of struggle, Monday’s tutoring session was the first one that actually happened.
“It’s difficult, but it’s worth it,” said Bob Elwell, inmate-services coordinator. Many more inmates have applied for the program and he is reviewing six more applications this week to see if they can take part.
For the kids and their father, it was a way to see each other. But it wasn’t a typical visit.
Instead of awkward questions (“Daddy, did you wear handcuffs when you went in the car?”), Daddy worked on the alphabet.
“It gets me closer to being with them,” Hernandez-Diaz said as he demonstrated sounds for one son. “It’s better than being upstairs. I would come down every day if I could, to be with them.”
Instead of four children fighting for his attention, he was able to move from child to child, giving each one-on-one attention as he learned their tutors’ techniques. Their various foster agencies requested that the children’s names be withheld because they are in foster care.
Sheriff Dominic Dagostino was one of the tutors. He’s also tutoring at Lincoln Elementary School, but he’s particularly hopeful about the jail tutoring.
“Two reasons: productive time with the child and also teaching that inmate how to spend quality time with that child,” Dagostino said.
Tutors don’t simply read to the children. They use the Schenectady City School District’s picture alphabet — an “h” is pictured with a hammer, for example — to help students memorize sounds and letters. They’ve been taught not to simply point at the letters in order, because older children have the alphabet memorized even if they don’t recognize the letters.
For some children, the first step is making sure they can decipher the pictures.
“You know what this is? What does it look like?” Magid asked one of the boys, pointing to a rabbit.
The boy squinted at the picture and ventured, “A bird?”
Even if they are told what the picture is, Magid and other tutors must make sure they know the word.
“What is that? A hammer. Like you bang a nail,” Magid said, gesturing as if he were using a hammer.
On the other side of the divider, Hernandez-Diaz chimed in, explaining pictures.
In one case, he also translated for one son, who had offered an inaudible word when he was asked about the picture of scissors.
“He said it. Scissors. He has a speech problem,” Hernandez-Diaz said. “We’re doing speech therapy.”
After several tries with his father emphasizing the shape of his mouth, the boy managed a relatively clear “scissors.”
The caseworkers sat back, observing.
“Dad requested this,” Nadine Scarlett of DSS said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for father and children to bond. Now that he’s incarcerated doesn’t mean the relationship should end.”
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Categories: News, Schenectady County