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 , Correspondent

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

In effect, public funding served as seed money for a social service that's now delivered primarily via private partnerships, including religious groups.

"Normally, you come up with a model and engage the public sector in spreading your interesting model, and it becomes an ongoing area of service," says David Wright, an expert on faith-based initiatives at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York. "To reverse it, the question would be: Who would pick up something that was piloted by the government?"

So far, in this new environment, children of prisoners usually aren't aware that public support for their mentoring has vanished. What they know is that growing up comes with a lot of challenges, especially when Dad or Mom is behind bars. And that their mentors care enough to keep showing up.

Though mentors were all volunteers, MCP funded screening, training, and coordinating matches with mentees. They were often people like Williams: churchgoers who saw mentoring the most vulnerable of children as a God-given mission.

Surviving in environs that sent Dad to prison

On a sunny afternoon last fall, a bullet-riddled Pontiac Grand Am sat like a monument to violence beside an open field at The Estates housing project in New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward. Young children played a game of tug of war nearby, and older kids shot hoops on a court across the street.

"Those [older kids] are the ones we're trying to get mentors for," said Marcia Peterson, executive director of Desire Street Ministries, whose MCP funding was cut.

As four boys waited to get in the game, they talked about their absent fathers: All had either been murdered or incarcerated. And asked if they were fearful of living in this neighborhood, where murder is common, one said, "Not too much," explaining matter-of-factly that the playground is where all the shooting happens at night, and that they live a block away.

For children of prisoners, Priority 1 is often survival in the same environment that drew Mom or Dad into crime. For many, it's an inner-city setting. (New Orleans has 5,000 children of prisoners; Philadelphia, a much larger city, has 30,000.)

In Detroit, for example, mentors from the Progressive National Baptist Convention are given urban hazard training from the start: how to exit a room quickly – as in how to jump out a window.

"It is not the soft kind of 'we're going to go to the movies, stop and have little pop, have a great conversation about your school and your grades.' No, no, no, no," says Dee Dee Coleman, co-chair of the PNBC's Commission on Social Justice and Prison Ministry. "In Detroit, we have some tough stuff we're dealing with every day, and talking about your grades is not one of them."

Helping kids survive and go on to find success, of course, entails more than dodging lines of fire. By showing up consistently, mentors become trusted sounding boards for children when they're frustrated or feeling disrespected, says Stewart Young, who oversees a mentoring program for Catholic Charities of Greater New Orleans.

Giving them room to form a habit of thinking calmly can help them avoid overreacting by, say, punching an authority figure or reaching for a weapon to settle a dispute.

Though the impact of mentoring has often been exaggerated, it gets results under certain conditions, says Jean Rhodes, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts Boston. When a child's greatest challenges are environmental, such as an unsettled home life, mentoring seems to help kids with incarcerated parents do better in school. When matches last a year or more, kids experience more academic success than in shorter matches.

"Mentoring is a tremendously beneficial thing ... but only when done right," Ms. Rhodes says. Done right, in her view, includes proper screening of volunteers, careful training, and "making sure [matches] don't terminate prematurely, because that actually does more harm than good."

Achieving longevity is challenging, in part because children of prisoners tend to move around a lot – to stay with grandparents or other relatives, or at foster homes. A recent MCP evaluation done for the US Department of Health and Human Services found extreme poverty was one of the most common risk factors for kids in the program, and 39 percent had moved within the preceding six months. Only 46 percent of mentor matches lasted more than a year.

Seeing need for improvement, the administration requested funding at a lower level while the kinks got worked out. Instead, Congress cut the funding altogether. But it hasn't killed the mission.

It was the faith-based community in Philadelphia that first took on mentoring children with parents behind bars.

As recently as the mid-1990s, these kids weren't singled out as candidates for mentoring. But with a boom in incarceration rates, Philadelphia's former mayor, Wilson Goode, an ordained minister whose own father had been incarcerated, pioneered a partnership that soon drew national attention – and established children of prisoners as a group worthy of attention.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania had mentoring expertise, but not enough volunteers. African-American churches had community contacts and volunteers, but lacked specialized mentoring know-how. Mr. Goode brought them together. The resulting program was called Amachi, based on a Nigerian Ibo word that means "who knows but what God has brought us through this child."

Politics helped Amachi become a national model. The Bush administration's faith-based initiative, led by Philadelphian John Dilulio, was created to help religious organizations compete for a larger share of the social service budget, according to Lew Daly, author of "God's Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State."

Program's end a 'shocker'

Singling out children of prisoners would give churches a natural advantage because long-established prison ministries could identify eligible kids more quickly and easily than secular nonprofits could. In his 2003 State of the Union message, Mr. Bush called for a Mentoring Children of Prisoners program.

It was born later that year. And for the next eight years, children with incarcerated parents were priorities for mentoring agencies, which could earn earmarked grant funds by finding them mentors.

Then came the "shocker."

"Usually, once a program gets the federal money, it gets a constituency that protects it from ever getting cut," explains Robert Fischer, codirector of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "This cut is a shocker because the data [on MCP's effectiveness] are still fairly preliminary" and because funding was totally eliminated, not just reduced.

Now children of prisoners run the risk of receding into society's shadows, where stigma and shame keep families from broadcasting their unique needs. To be sure, mentoring organizations still serve kids who happen to have a parent who's locked up. But with no federal funds designated for organizing this work, agencies no longer scramble to seek out children of prisoners.

"Early in the grant, we made sure everything was there at the jail so we had a presence there – items out, brochures, information" for inmate parents, says Tom Baker, chief community affairs officer for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh. "We were a little more active during the grant" than today.

After the cuts, what?

Mentoring advocates say this crossroads moment after the end of MCP is crucial – some cities continue with mentoring by pioneering new ways to reach vulnerable kids, while others find little passion for the difficult nature of reaching out to children of prisoners.

The situation in Houston is one example of the difficulty.

"Everybody knows somebody who's been to jail," says Sherrie Young, executive director of Ambassadors for Christ, an MCP grantee working in Houston's toughest neighborhoods. "It's considered a rite of passage. After you've been to jail, people see you as a man."

And with a faith-oriented culture that is home to many larger churches, Houston would seem well positioned to recruit mentors from the pews. But, says Ms. Young, even churches located in these neighborhoods have declined, one after another, to let her address their congregations. Churches in other parts of town have been no more receptive. Other cities face similar resistance, in part because church volunteers already feel stretched thin.

"A lot of churches are trying to do their own thing [and] want to keep the volunteers for themselves," explains Lina Serna, mentoring coordinator at Family Service in Lawrence, Mass., which increasingly finds mentors at gyms and colleges. "We haven't been really welcomed."

But communities affected by incarceration are not giving up. Some are rekindling ties with church leaders who've been supportive in the past, and others are reaching out beyond the faith community to other local support groups.

Resolve was on display one brisk January morning at the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh. Fifty people filled the hall – pastors, parents, children, mentors – all of whom had felt firsthand what incarceration does to families left behind. They gathered to consider a future for Amachi Pittsburgh, which had found mentors for 900 kids since 2003.

"Amachi did not occur in a vacuum," said Richard Freeman, president of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, a criminal justice reform group. "It occurred where systems are in place that created the problem. We need to change the systems…. We gotta get mad a little bit."

The news was encouraging. The United Way of Allegheny County, in response to Michelle Obama's Corporate Mentoring Challenge, had donated $100,000. A local insurer had just become a benefactor, too. African-American pastors were renewing efforts to recruit mentors from the pews. And young people who'd been mentored were mustering courage to tell their stories for the first time.

Among them was Marc West. Nine years ago at age 11, Mr. West had a father in jail and an observant eye: In his neighborhood, the men with money got it by passing drugs and cash through windows. He thought about following their example, but Norman Edmunds showed him another way.

Mr. Edmunds, a Christian and a general contractor, began mentoring West by playing basketball and having meals with him. Building on a shared faith, they talked about using God-given talents wisely and treating people fairly. While his father cycled in and out of jail, West followed Edmunds to job sites, where he learned carpentry. He recently received an associate degree in automotive technology.

"He was getting me out of the neighborhood, where there was a lot of negativity and people just doing nothing," West said. "I would call him, tell him what I was thinking about my next steps, just try to get work and do something positive. And he would be there."

In other cities, faith groups aren't the only ones carrying mentoring forward. In Providence, for instance, Rhode Islanders Sponsoring Education (RISE) relies on local corporations to step up in-kind contributions and recruitment efforts of employees to grow the ranks of mentors.

Fruits of these efforts play out quietly around the city. On a November Saturday, Kah'Reem Copeland, a tech support specialist for a Providence-based bank, had a treat in store for his mentee, Vladimir Torres, an earnest 12-year-old with a buzz cut. Providence College had given tickets to the basketball team's home opener to RISE, and they were going to the game – after a burger lunch.

For Vladimir, whose father and stepfather each have incarceration histories, a friend like Mr. Copeland was a long time coming. He'd waited a year for a mentor because, in Providence, as in other cities, women volunteer to mentor in greater numbers than men do. Boys tend to languish on waiting lists. Then Copeland came across a promotion for the program.

"I had friends who were in that situation [with an incarcerated parent], and I saw them go [in] a downward spiral," said Copeland, who is single. "I came from a single-parent family and had a lot of men in my life … teachers who offered me guidance and unofficial mentors, like uncles. I thought, 'I can help a kid who needs me. So why not?' "

Twice a month, Copeland takes Vladimir out, often for a corporate-sponsored outing. They've been to Pawtucket Red Sox games, a pumpkin festival, even cow-milking at a farm. Copeland isn't religious, but he teaches elements of a moral code, nonetheless: Be on time. Respect your mother. Learn all you can. Vladimir is open to all of it, it seems, as long as he gets to be with Copeland.

"I feel comfortable and good with him around me," Vladimir explains. He seemed sincere about it. After a big meal, he slid across the booth to Copeland, who put his arm around the boy and let him melt into his side.

Community bonds stronger than federal funds?

New Orleans, with 199 murders last year in a city of 344,000, is perhaps doing the most to see that children of prisoners get paired with mentors. With turf wars raging as residents displaced by hurricane Katrina return to the city and no easy solutions, local leaders see mentoring as a financially feasible approach that can rally the city's religious culture behind a common cause.

Last September, Mayor Mitch Landrieu introduced "Save Our Sons," an antiviolence initiative in which mentoring would be a pillar. Seven months earlier, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Michael Aymond heralded "New Battle of New Orleans," in which mentoring and family strengthening ministries would help save a rising generation.

This winter, three Roman Catholic parishes piloted a new mentoring program for at-risk children that will be scaled up across the archdiocese later this year. In separate projects, more than 500 residents have pledged to start mentoring in response to "Save Our Sons" outreach. Experts note that most who express interest at first don't end up mentoring, but city officials remain hopeful.

Meanwhile, existing mentoring programs press on with help from new sources. Catholic Charities of Greater New Orleans' Cornerstone Children now relies on an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer to coordinate mentoring for kids who've been riding free Catholic Charities buses to visit parents at Angola and other state prisons.

As organizations learn to sustain motivation, mentors build on bonds that are proving more dur­able than federal support.

One night at an Indian restaurant, mentor Brenda Williams presided as the Booze family gathered for dinner. As Williams blessed the food in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the girls crossed themselves just as she'd taught them. It was a sign of things that do not change, much like their understanding of the bond they share.

"The commitment was for a year," said Williams, who's close with the younger girls' mentors, too. "But if these girls want us out of their lives, they're going to have to kick us out.… We're in their lives now, and they're in our lives."

As the movement sputters in some places and gains momentum in others, it's clear mentoring for these children is only as durable as their neighbors' commitments to it. The head winds can be stiff. Communities aren't used to picking up responsibilities once covered by federal funders. And relatives of criminals aren't an easy political sell.

Today, the work of mentoring children of pris-oners has come full circle. It has fallen in large measure back into the laps of churches that made it into a national cause. How they and others handle the challenge is apt to be a test of faith.

•Travel to Houston, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Providence, R.I., for this article was funded by the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism's 2011 Knight Grants for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life.

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