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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.

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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.

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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.

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