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Cover Story

No child left alone: Volunteers mentor children of inmates

With 2.3 million inmates behind bars in the US, the goal of volunteers in mentor programs for the 2.7 million children of prisoners is: No child left alone. Despite government cuts in funding, the programs continue.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent / March 25, 2012

Despite government funding cuts, volunteers who mentor children of inmates – like Nala Booze (right, with her mentor, Beaula McCoy) – have been able to continue their outreach goal: No child left alone.This article is part of the cover project in the March 26 issue of The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine.

Ann Hermes / Staff

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New Orleans

Kayla Booze was a happy 9-year-old who loved art projects and was an A-student in elementary school – before the police came for her father.

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Kayla's childhood sunshine was eclipsed when her dad was convicted in 2005 of murder for shooting a man in a barbershop fight and sentenced to life in a Mississippi federal prison. Kayla grew guarded and angry, says Brandy Booze, Kayla's mother, who was left to raise three daughters on her own as a part-time retail saleswoman. Faltering grades and disinterest put the child at risk of dropping out of New Orleans schools.

It was a familiar spiral for kids like Kayla and her two younger sisters, who belong to a little-known American population that is highly vulnerable and mostly invisible: the children left behind by the US inmate population of 2.3 million. There are an estimated 2.7 million children with a parent behind bars, according to a Pew Center on the States report. And that's up from 950,000 in 1987 when 1 out of every 125 kids had a parent in jail or prison; today it's 1 in 28. Among African-American children, it's 1 in 9.

The strains and shame of parental incarceration compound other childhood challenges, from poverty to an unstable home life. So these children are more at risk than others of ending up in prison themselves.

But Kayla, now 17, was detoured from that route and is making decent grades in high school. She's teaching herself piano and preparing for college and a career in fashion design.

A key factor in her turnaround: Her mother hasn't been alone in guiding the kids. Kayla has a mentor – Brenda Williams – who meets her every two weeks for an outing to church, a meal, or a stroll in a park. So when a principal called a meeting to discuss poor grades last year, at the table with Mom was Ms. Williams, who was matched with Kayla in 2009 through a federal faith-based initiative called Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCP).

Williams's role in Kayla's life, says the teen, "motivated me because it was more than [just my mother] telling me that I had to do what I had to do. [My mentor] wants to see me succeed, to write books, and have that fashion line. But I can't do that if I don't graduate...."

The MCP support system that brought Kayla and Williams together was a $49 million annual program that, between 2003 and last September, paired more than 100,000 children of prisoners with volunteer mentors. A legacy of the George W. Bush administration's faith-based initiative that aimed to deliver a larger share of social services through religious organizations, MCP steered money to agencies, some faith-based and some not, to partner with churches and other organizations in recruiting and training mentors.

But the program came to an abrupt end because of federal budget cuts last September.

At the time, advocates for the program said mentors would soon stop meeting with their mentees. "In big cities, you're going to see less and less mentoring because there's not federal money to support it," predicted Beth Lovell, director of family strengthening for Volunteers of America, a faith-based group and MCP grantee. "Where there's federal money, that's what people will move to. It's just business."

But a six-month Monitor investigation of the former MCP projects found that mentoring has not withered.

More than a dozen agencies nationwide report that most of the MCP matches continue to meet and receive staff support when occasional problems arise. Reporting on the ground in four cities found relationships to be resilient despite tough circumstances.

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