Features

And I don’t know how to feel about it

My dad is in jail. How’s that for a hook? When I tell people about my father’s situation, it often causes jaws to drop; then I get looks of shock and wonder, and finally the predictable: “Oh, I’m so sorry. For what?  If you don’t mind me asking?”

I’m a pretty open book, and now that my father’s been in prison for over a year, I am even more so. My dad was charged in March 2008, after an investigation that began in 2005, with one count of fraud over $5,000, with the total civil suits amounting over $3.4 million. He had owned a financial services company dealing mostly in life insurance and high-risk investments. The company went under before going public and before any of the investors could get a return on their investments. That is not necessarily a crime, but my dad faced a fraud charge because of the pushy sales tactics he used and because the judge ruled that there was malintent on his part from the company’s inception. This wasn’t just a screw up, but rather my dad’s plan from the beginning—to screw people out of millions. After the six-year investigation, he pleaded guilty three weeks into his 2011 trial; Feb. 14 of this year marked the first year served of his three-year sentence. He has a parole hearing this month, and God willing, will be moved to a halfway house as soon as possible.

People are curious about my situation, which is natural, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to squash certain stereotypes: No, I don’t talk to my dad on phones through three-inch-thick glass, but yes, we have had to before; no, he does not have a shank, but when he was in a maximum security prison for the first four months of his sentence, other prisoners did; no, he doesn’t wear an orange jumpsuit.

I do not mean in any way to undermine the perspectives and feelings of victims of crimes, because in this case, there were victims, and people’s lives were shattered. At the same time, this process has not been easy for my family either. Family is family, and parents are just people who can make mistakes, even 3.4 million-dollar ones. When that happens, you have no choice but to link arms, make adjustments, and keep moving forward.

You’re on trial—smile for the camera
London, Ont., where I am from and where my family lives, is a decently sized city that feels like a small town—one made up of cliques of conservative, old money. In 2005, when accusations began flying and the investigation started, a scandal like this one was, and to a certain extent still is, big news. Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 22, 2006, 12 articles were published about my dad in the London Free Press, and they all made the front page.

The worst by far was the article published in December 2006 with the headline “Van Dyk jailed over Christmas.” It felt as if the journalist was gloating that I would be spending my first Christmas without my dad.

I’ve talked to my siblings, and I can say that none of us ever felt judged for my father’s behaviour. At the same time, though, I was in high school during his trial, and it was painful trying to ignore the entertainment the whole city seemed to get out of my family’s situation.

The case was finally presented at court at the end of 2011. He was officially sentenced and sent to jail on Valentine’s Day of 2012. I was in Ottawa for the duration of his three-week trial, but my little brother Mitchell, 18 at the time, sat in on parts of it.

“It was difficult,” he said. “There was no one on his side; they were all witnesses against him. Finding out all the details we didn’t know about before was hard, because we only ever got dad’s point of view.

“When I went with him in the elevator, some guy refused to take the elevator with us. We’re just going to get some lunch and we were treated like scum.”

The trial was an emotional experience because so many details of my dad’s crime came out of the woodwork and it felt as though he, and by extension we, were under constant attack. These were details that had previously been kept from us because we were young and because he’s our dad. It was a struggle to confront conflicting emotions: On the one hand, I wanted to be mad at the lawyers, the judge, the press, and everyone else for putting my dad and our entire family through such an awful process. On the other hand, it was really my dad I wanted to be mad at.

Our family dynamic changed drastically during the six-year span of the investigation. My dad made significant, concrete efforts to get his life on track; my siblings and I had gone through our teens and grown into adults. I wanted to support my dad because he had tenfold the amount of enemies than he had allies, but it was impossible to stay blind to what he had done. It may sound ridiculous, but whatever I felt about the situation when I woke up in the morning was what I went with that day. Some days I was pissed at him, some I was disappointed, and some I was just his daughter and didn’t think about the trial at all. I didn’t know how to do it any other way, and I don’t think I would do it differently even now.

Visiting hours are over
After his sentencing, my dad spent a short time at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London and then was moved to a maximum-security prison, Millhaven Institution, in Bath, Ont., to be assessed. No one from my family visited him while he was there, for several reasons. First, approval for a visit can take weeks, and we didn’t know how long he would be there. Second, we weren’t sure what to expect. By this point, he was able to make short calls fairly regularly using a calling card. To say that his time at the maximum-security facility was difficult would be a gross understatement. I spoke to my dad about the situation.

“A lot of the time when you’re in jail, you get selfish,” my dad said to me. “The selfish feeling is that you wish you could see your family. You miss them so much and you just want that comfort. In actuality, I had to think of your feelings too. I wasn’t worried about you missing me, or whatever else, but actually fearing for me. Had you guys come to Millhaven and seen that shit, it would’ve scared you. It would’ve kept you up at night. It was the smell—it all smelled like metal.”

Minimum—sweet digs
My dad is now in a minimum-security facility and it is not at all how you might imagine. He calls me every day. When my family and I go visit, we all sit at picnic tables outside. We eat chips, drink coffee, and laugh. We just visit. It’s not often we would just sit there and talk for hours on end with no distractions before he was jailed. We aren’t allowed to have our phones in there, and because we can only go see him every few months, there’s no way we’re leaving early, so we’re often there for extended periods of time.

“I don’t know what people envision,” my dad said when I asked him about prison stereotypes. “But they don’t envision a guy sitting down for 20 minutes, calling his daughter, and making her laugh. I think people just expect us to be sad all the time.”

A year isn’t forever, but it’s still a long time. If all we could talk about was the crime, the sadness, and all the other shit we just so happen to be going through, we’d never get anywhere. We talk about everyday things: school and work and the weather and TV—you’d be shocked how many channels they get in jail.

We’ve always had, and do our best to maintain, a lighthearted relationship. There’s no point in dwelling on the negative, because it will soon be behind us. I think that’s a major factor with my dad’s situation. The charges were pressed against him years ago, and even though he still screws up—we are all a work in progress, after all—he has made genuine efforts and strides to be better.

Pick up your pen
Studies have shown that prisoners who get visitors, receive letters, and make phone calls have a significantly lower chance of reoffending after their release. The biggest thing my family and I have struggled with is the lack of communication. Admittedly, we’re able to talk pretty frequently, but you don’t realize how frustrating it is to not be able to send a text until that privilege is gone. What’s most striking to me about this situation isn’t my personal perspective, but rather the thought of what it must be like for prisoners with no friends or family.

Of course it was difficult to have my dad miss Christmas and my sister’s high school graduation and prom, and it’s even worse because he brought that upon himself—but the message I want to convey is that holding it over his head forever is detrimental to everybody. Besides, he still has plenty to look forward to.

“Yeah, I’m missing time with my kids, but I was able to spend the time with you in the important years,” my dad said. “The [next] important times are your weddings, and when you have kids, and when you start your first real big job. I don’t want to miss that. I want to be able to get a call in the middle of the night saying you’ve had a baby and show up at the hospital with cigars.”

I know that when he gets out, he’ll have changed. It comes through clearly whenever we talk.

“I tell all the guys around here, don’t forget where you came from,” he said. “Don’t forget how much that five by 10 cell sucked in maximum security. Don’t forget how badly it sucked to be in here on Christmas. When you get out there, you can appreciate it. Even if you think you’re having a shitty day, it’s better than that five by 10 cell.”

It’s shitty, because there’s now a trust thing that needs to be overcome. I think that’s the biggest thing: trying to be supportive and to forgive. I know that he’s really and truly sorry, but at the same time, it’s hard to be trusting when it comes to money. If my dad took me out for an expensive dinner before he was jailed, I automatically questioned where the money came from, despite the fact that I know he had changed for the better and the money was earned legitimately by that point. I feel guilty for scrutinizing him, and I feel guilty for still having nice things and lacking for nothing when I know that so many people lost their life savings at his expense. It’s hard to wrap your mind and your heart around someone you love so much and who loves you so much doing something so awful to someone else.

The bottom line is that he’s my dad. He’ll always be my dad. He’s the best dad. My siblings and I have always supported him, still do, and always will. We know he won’t reoffend, because we know what we all went through with this experience, and how much it killed him to miss those milestones and important moments in our lives.

Forgive, move forward, and don’t forget to laugh
Although the majority of this experience has sucked, it has brought my family together in a way I never thought would be possible, and we’ve been through something that seems like a nightmare to those who haven’t experienced it.

Some of this whole dad-in-jail thing hasn’t been horrible, and has actually been kinda cool. There have been a lot of laughs. I had to get sniffed by drug dogs, which is something I never thought I’d experience—and, for the record, do not care to repeat.

I’ve learned a lot. For instance, did you know something like 80 per cent of money comes in contact with drugs at some point or another? When you visit a jail, they use different methods of drug testing before you’re allowed in, so my dad told us to wash our coins before visiting, just in case. Upon entering the jail for the first time, the guard asked my grandmother if she was bringing anything into the facility besides her car keys, and she replied, “No, just some money—but don’t worry, I washed it first.”

At the risk of being a total cliché, I asked my family to share some final words and perspective on what this entire situation has been like, and where we hope to go from here. I may be a little biased, but I’m pretty impressed at what smart cookies they are. We’re not saying our way of handling having a family member in jail is the best way, or the only way, because there are so many other factors that come into play. Forgiving and moving on is just our way.

“You’re family, and you should love unconditionally,” said my sister Madison. “People make mistakes even if they’re really big ones, even if they’re life changing. You have to get over it. You have to forgive. You’re never going to get anywhere if you hold grudges. You can’t forgive yourself if you’re holding a grudge, because it’s a burden on yourself to stay angry. Get over it, make the best of every situation, and let the good times roll.”

“I don’t get stressed out at things I can’t control,” Mitchell said. “You can’t take care of them when they’re in there, they have to do it on their own. The most you can do is support them. Realistically speaking, you can’t freak out at them, and there’s nothing you can do. Like Madison said, you’ve just got to let the good times roll.”

I agree.