Guiding hands for kids with parents behind bars

They call him "Papa," though he's not their dad. Pastor Reginald Littlejohn is mentor to Tiffany Robinson and her little brother, Monte, whose real father, in and out of prison, is now in again.

Since becoming part of Philadelphia's new program to mentor children of inmates, Tiffany has opened up more, and Monte has improved his grades, Mr. Littlejohn says.

Tiffany says shyly that Papa is more like a granddad than a father. "He teaches us math. He teaches us to respect people," she says.

City officials hope to help hundreds of other children of prison inmates by pairing them with local church volunteers - and they are pleased that President Bush's budget for the first time includes money to help in endeavors like this.

It's a small amount to spread across the US - only $67 million - but it gives an indication of what the president has in mind.

As part of his push for faith-based involvement in

addressing America's social problems, Mr. Bush visited Philadelphia yesterday with plans to showcase the city's efforts.

A largely invisible group to date, children of incarcerated parents are drawing more attention as their numbers climb along with the exploding US prison population. Today, about 1.5 million children have at least one parent behind bars - up 50 percent since the early 1990s.

Ironically, the president's initiative is trying to solve a problem that politicians from both parties have helped create. While a tough-on-crime mentality of mandatory minimum sentencing has reduced crime rates, it's also had the unintended effect of locking young children into troublesome lives. A majority of these kids are under 10 years old, and according to a Senate report, children of inmates are six times more likely to end up in jail.

Of particular concern is the rising population of women inmates, who, far more than male prisoners, were their children's primary caregivers.

"For every mother that is in prison, her child is in prison, too. They are doing serious time, which is why it is so important that this issue is coming to the forefront," says Sandra Barnhill, who runs a program called Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers in Atlanta. Running on a shoestring staff of four, including herself, the secular program serves 85 kids in mentoring programs, after-school care, summer camp, and other activities.

"Under the slogan of 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' is a whole range of effects on families and communities that's gone largely ignored by politicians of both parties," says Marc Mauer, assistant director for the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization in Washington. "Every time you send someone to prison, you essentially sentence that person's immediate family to economic hardship, emotional difficulties, and so on," Mr. Mauer adds.

With 20,000 of Philadelphia's children having parents doing time, Mayor John Street is acutely aware of the problem. A believer in the role of churches in healing social ills, he turned to Public/Private Ventures, which works with faith-based institutions and other service providers in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

In November, PPV started the kids-of-inmates "Amachi" mentoring program, a West African word meaning "Who knows what God has brought us through this child?" Since then, Amachi staff have recruited 550 volunteers - asking for at least 10 mentors from each of 43 Philadelphia congregations.

Amachi works with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which screens the volunteers for suitability and criminal records, trains them, and then manages the cases. The volunteers are required to spend at least one hour each week with their child, and the program stresses a long-term commitment. About 800 kids have been identified so far, and more than 300 matches have been made.

Although Amachi is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the William E. Simon Foundation, federal funding "would enable us to take this to scale," says Wilson Goode, the former mayor of Philadelphia who is now Mayor Street's senior adviser on faith-based programs. "If I had federal dollars, I could do 2,000 mentors in this city. We could replicate this across the country."

Mr. Goode, well aware of the criticisms of the president's faith-based initiative - which is expected to be debated in the House when lawmakers return from the July 4 recess - deflects those concerns. Government already funds religious-based activities like housing for the poor, he says. And while faith helps motivate the volunteers, and may be part of a mentoring relationship, it's not a required part of the message.

But faith does play a definite role between Littlejohn and his charges. The two children attend Sunday school at the Faith Temple Pentecostal Church, where Littlejohn and his wife, Mary - also a mentor - are co-pastors.

"I teach them the Bible," says Mr. Littlejohn, who proudly points to an easel of biblical drawings done by Tiffany in their tiny storefront church. He also does lots of other activities with them: skits and plays, swimming, visits to museums downtown, the movies, and the carnival.

The need is great, says Littlejohn. In the elementary school where he teaches special education, all 15 students in his class have a parent in jail. As for his impact on Tiffany and Monte, he says, "Their faces tell me how effective I am. I believe they're going to produce."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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