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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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Then came the "shocker."

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"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.

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