Standing in for prison dads, moms

The number of kids whose parents are in prison has surged. They need caring adults to step in.

This Christmas, more than 2 million children will not have a parent home for the holidays because that person is sitting in a state or federal prison. These children, whose ranks have grown with the rising prison population, need caring adults willing to mentor them.

In 1995, 500,000 kids had a parent in prison. But since then, as sentencing guidelines have taken effect and probation and parole officers have taken a harder line, more kids are suffering for the mistakes of their parents.

That costs them and society, because children of incarcerated parents are much more likely to end up behind bars. (A congressional report in 2000 puts that likelihood at 70 percent).

A committed, loving relationship with these children can help break that intergenerational cycle – but only if enough volunteers are willing to commit to mentoring a child in their spare time.

A national program called Amachi shows the possibilities of matching caring adults with children of inmates. The effort began in Philadelphia as a public-private partnership in 2000. It went national a few years later and is now in 48 states and 210 cities. It reaches 60,000 children of inmates.

Amachi trains other established volunteer organizations, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Volunteers of America to carry out its program across the nation. These groups in turn tap mainly churches and other religious institutions for volunteers. ("Amachi" is a West African word that means: "Who knows what God has brought us through this child?")

The program fits the White House emphasis on federal funding for faith groups that do social work, and Amachi relies heavily on $200 million from the Department of Health and Human Services. Faith-based government funding is controversial because of issues relating to the separation of church and state, but Amachi skirts this controversy with its policy of keeping preaching out of mentoring.

Only results justify continued funding, and Amachi can point to studies to back its claims. A 1995 Big Brothers Big Sisters study shows that a child benefits generally when he or she meets weekly with a mentor over a year. Amachi's own surveys show that two-thirds of their kids improve their grades, behaviors, and school attendance.

Despite Amachi's growth, the need for volunteers is great. Girls are fairly easily matched to women mentors, but there's a long waiting list of boys. The program needs adult males, especially African-Americans. Men "are just very reluctant to make the long-term commitment" of one hour a week for one year, says Wilson Goode, who heads Amachi.

When men meet the faces behind the numbers, however, and hear of the mutual satisfaction and joy that come from a regular Saturday outing for a bite to eat, a sporting event, or simply hanging out, they respond positively.

Mr. Goode is testament to the power of mentoring. His dad was in prison as he was growing up, and his high school counselor dismissed college as an option. But Goode's pastor took a special interest in him and helped him get to college. That Goode became Philadelphia's first black mayor, shows the difference a caring adult can make.

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