- Associated Press - Monday, March 11, 2019

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Any parent will say nothing can truly prepare one for parenthood, an axiom that was true for East Hartford resident Steven Castano.

In November, while living in North Carolina, Castano learned he had a 2-year-old daughter in Connecticut. At the same time, Castano learned the child’s mother was incarcerated and the child was in the care of her maternal grandmother.

After contacting Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families, Castano, 30, took a DNA test at a nearby clinic that confirmed he was the biological father of 2-year-old Kryzmarie. Within days of receiving the DNA test results, Castano dropped everything - he quit his “dream job” as a pawnbroker, and began the process of selling his motorcycle and condo - and moved back to Connecticut.

Castano moved in with his mother and sister in the East Hartford home in which he grew up, and, though he was eager to assume the responsibility of raising Kryzmarie, he first had to navigate various steps in the legal process to determine his suitability as a guardian for his daughter.

Those steps included DCF-supervised visitations with Kryzmarie and court appearances, a two-month whirlwind that culminated in Castano getting custody of Kryzmarie on Jan. 8.



Though Castano is thrilled with his new life as a father, and his renewed sense of purpose, he acknowledges the difficulty of what he’s undertaken.

DCF acknowledges it too, which is why the agency put Castano in touch with Abdul-Rahmaan Muhammad of My People Clinical Services in Hartford as soon as he got to Connecticut. The organization, started by Muhammad in 2005, offers a range of social support services, including fatherhood engagement services.

In addition to helping guide Castano through the court process - Muhammad was present in court every time Castano had to appear - Muhammad and the organization are working with Castano to help him develop his parenting skills.

Castano meets with Muhammad once a week one-on-one, attends a weekly group session with other fathers, and keeps a “nurturing fatherhood” journal documenting his journey as a parent.

Castano says the support he’s received from Muhammad has been invaluable.

“It’s like a dad or big brother you just don’t have,” Castano says. “To have Abdul in my corner really helps out a lot.”

Muhammad says he’s been impressed with Castano’s commitment to learning how to be the best parent he can be, but he says Castano’s enthusiasm isn’t the norm.

“His case is very unique because he dropped everything to go be a father to his kid,” he says. “Other cases are more complex.”

Understanding the important role a father plays in a child’s life, DCF is expanding its fatherhood engagement efforts by contracting with six agencies that provide services similar to the ones Castano is receiving from My People Clinical Services.

According to DCF administrator Linda Dixon, each agency is situated in one of the six regions DCF serves statewide. DCF also is contracting with the state Department of Correction to provide instruction and support to incarcerated fathers who are within two months of being released.

DCF is spending $900,000 on the contracts, which last for one year, and estimates that close to 300 fathers will be served by the program.

Dixon says studies have shown that children have better outcomes when their father is involved, in areas such as school performance, and behavioral and emotional development.

“Engaged fathers are so important for our kids,” she says.

Back in the Castano home, Kryzmarie toddles about, happily moving her dolls from place to place. When she first came to live with her dad, she was quiet, more hesitant. She’d been through a lot, Castano says, but the change in her in just the last few weeks - she’s talking a lot more, Castano and Muhammad say - has been significant.

Castano says the first few weeks she was living there were like a “sleepover” in Kryzmarie’s eyes, but then came the challenge of setting up ground rules like naptime and bedtime. Now they’re working on potty training. It’s a challenge, but Castano is teaching her, and she’s teaching him.

“Me and her are learning about each other every day,” he says. “Me and her are still growing together, we’re still figuring each other out.”

Next up for Castano is enrolling Kryzmarie in day care, and then getting back to work. Though he’s done more living in the past few months than he has in his whole life, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

He says his daughter has filled a hole he’s had in his heart since his father, Alejandro, was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. That Kryzmarie’s birthday - Sept. 12 - comes just a day after the anniversary of the worst day of his life, isn’t lost on Castano.

When he found out his daughter’s birthday, he took a step back, looked up to the sky, and told his dad that going forward, his daughter always would be his first priority.

“You know how they say you always have that missing spot in your heart,” he asks. “She filled it, and took it over. She filled more than that space up.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2NWooRQ

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Information from: Journal Inquirer, http://www.journalinquirer.com

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