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Children's Voice Article, September/October, 2004

Mentoring the Children of Prisoners

By Peter Slavin

They were hidden from view for years--millions of children that few Americans had ever thought twice about. But when President George W. Bush, in three State of the Union addresses, called for volunteers to mentor children with parents in prison, he shined a light on a group of children who, as one pastor put it, had been "a faceless, voiceless group that nobody [had] been speaking up for."

Last year, the President asked Congress to appropriate $150 million to bring mentors to 100,000 of these children. Though the press took little notice of the President's proposal, Congress followed up by funding the first 52 new mentoring programs around the country for this all but invisible population.

The initiative seems inspired by the Amachi program in Philadelphia, which the President had visited twice. Since 2001, Amachi has mobilized 680 volunteers to mentor 735 children of current and former prisoners through the cooperation of faith groups, Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS), and the nonprofit Public/Private Ventures.

Amachi Director Wilson Goode has gone into prisons and jails to recruit children through their parents, congregations concentrated in the inner city have provided the mentors, and BBBS has furnished the mentors with training and support. Arlene Lee, Director of CWLA's Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners, calls Goode's ability to catalyze the recruitment of 500 church members as mentors in the first year "the miracle of Amachi."

The success of this pioneering effort in Philadelphia has spawned other Amachi programs with the potential to serve 2,000 more children in 24 cities, and another 80 cities are starting their own programs. By the end of 2005, Goode foresees at least 200 such mentoring programs operating nationwide.

The original 52 grantees include local BBBS groups, faith-based organizations, prison family programs, state and local agencies, and foundations. Of these, 25 proposed programs are modeled on Amachi, drawing mentors from congregations. Congress provided $9 million to fund this first round of grantees and budgeted $50 million for 2004. Another $50 million is expected next year.

These sums, however, pale next to the size of the problem. An estimated 2 million young people under 18 have a parent in either prison or jail. Most have incarcerated fathers, but more than 116,000 are estimated to have a mother behind bars.

Many children of prisoners grow up with a struggling single parent or in the care of a relative or friend, some live in foster care or group homes, others are shunted from one place to another. Many live in neighborhoods afflicted with poverty, drug addiction, and violence. Largely African American and Latino, like the prison population, these children also live with racial discrimination.

Separated from the incarcerated parent, and often from siblings as well, many of these children know loss and grief, and they know the shame and stigma of being judged for having a parent behind bars. They feel both love and anger toward the incarcerated parent. Many often act out and get in trouble. They're at high risk for poor performance in school and dropping out, gang involvement, early pregnancy, and drug abuse.

Mentoring is seen as a way to help young people avoid these pitfalls. But it's far from a simple intervention.

Making Mentoring Work

Mentoring children of prisoners, proponents say, should build on what research has shown about effective mentoring. In any good program, the key elements are effective recruitment and training of mentors, appropriate matching of mentors and mentees, and ongoing support of mentors. The latter means such measures as mentor support groups for debriefing and problem solving; regular three-way conversations among staff coordinators, mentors, and mentees; and staff supervision and training.

The importance of program design cannot be over-emphasized. Youth mentoring experts Jean Baldwin Grossman and Jean Rhodes write,
It is increasingly clear from the research that youth can be negatively affected by being placed in a poorly designed program or by being matched with a poorly prepared or inappropriate mentor. These youth may be worse off, because of the program's failures, than they would be if they had never been in the program at all.
Also clear is that involving the family makes mentoring more effective. Notes Rhodes, author of Stand by Me: The Risks and Rewards of Mentoring Today's Youth, "When a parent feels involved in--as opposed to shut out by--the process that brings another adult into the child's life, the parent is more likely to reinforce the mentor's influences."

Research bears out the importance of family involvement. In her book, Contemporary Issues in Mentoring, Baldwin writes,
Frequent communication and getting to know a student's family (activities that are encouraged and supported by program staffing) significantly affect the development of strong relationships and student performance. Across two program evaluations (Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Sponsor-A-Scholar), students whose mentors contacted [their parents] most often had significantly better outcomes than comparison groups.
In the case of children of prisoners, effective mentoring has two other critical elements, says Ann Adalist-Estrin, a child and family therapist and consultant on family issues. The first is longevity. "Because they already feel abandoned by their parents . . . many children will not be able to cope with being left again."

The second is connecting with the family to reduce the child's sense of conflicting loyalties, unsure whether her primary allegiance is to her parent, who broke the law, the grandmother who may be caring for her, or her upstanding mentor. The fact that her grandmother understandably is apt to feel anger as well as love toward the incarcerated parent may increase the child's sense that to be loyal to one is to be disloyal to the other.

Into this triangle steps the mentor. "To have a mentor that just deals with the child and isn't . . . connected to the caregiver and the incarcerated parent will very likely increase the loyalty conflict," Adalist-Estrin says. In fact, sometimes the better the mentor's relationship with the child, the greater the child's loyalty conflict, especially when being with or like the mentor means rejecting the lifestyle, tastes, or values of the family. Adalist-Estrin also warns, "If the mentor sees himself as a rescuer and a savior, he may find it hard to align with the incarcerated parent and caregiver, and the child's dilemma will deepen."

Adalist-Estrin says the way to ease the child's sense that she has to choose among the people dearest to her lies in getting "everybody connected and communicating about the things that affect the child, and teaching them basic conflict resolution skills for times when problems arise."

That means involving both the incarcerated parent and caregiver in what mentor and child are doing. Since the caregiver and incarcerated parent are attuned to both the child and the family's values, it means checking in with them before making decisions with or for the child. For example, a mentor's conversations with the child should reflect these adults' views on matters like when to get ears pierced, go on a date, or ride the bus alone.

Approaches to Mentoring

Different programs may approach mentoring with different philosophies. One view is that mentoring is about teaching skills, doing things, and having fun with the child.

Amachi mentors and kids go to movies and sports events, have meals together, attend worship services and youth activities, join outings with the mentor's family, and just "hang out." Says Goode, "Having a loving, caring adult mentor a child for at least one hour at least once a week for one year has been proven to be a positive influence in that child's life."

The role of the incarcerated parent in the program, Goode says, begins and ends with recommending the child for mentoring. Family issues are referred to social workers and agencies. "It's not that there is not concern with family issues," he says, "[but] you cannot expect a volunteer…mentor to know how to deal with family issues."

Some children "never mention their parents throughout the relationship with the mentor," Goode says. "Our training says that only if the child mentions the [incarcerated] parent, does the mentor mention the parent. If the [child] says, 'Will you take me to see my parent?' the mentor will do so." In fact, Goode adds, most kids do talk about issues arising from incarceration once they get to know their mentors well.

Other programs believe working with the child is not enough, that strengthening family ties is critical. They see relationships as central-activities and fun are important, but they also want the mentor to help the child cope with his difficult circumstances, try to be a link to the incarcerated parent, and work with the caregiver to help the child with everyday issues.

Elizabeth Gaynes, Executive Director of the Osborne Association in New York City, has worked with prisoners' families for 20 years, and her own husband has been incarcerated since 1985. Gaynes believes the family issues surrounding incarceration must be addressed if the program is going to help the children. Children, she says, "do well when their families do well," so an intervention that doesn't support the parents can't accomplish much.

According to Gaynes, one thing a mentor can do to strengthen a family is teach the child not to feel shame about having a parent in prison. A mentor can help the child "negotiate this issue of how a parent might have done something bad, but it doesn't make them bad, and because your parent's done something bad doesn't mean you're bad." Gaynes says a mentor can also allay a young child's fear about the conditions the parent is living in.

Emani Davis, Gaynes's 25-year-old daughter, is creating a children of prisoners mentoring project for Centerforce, a nonprofit in San Rafael, California. It's vital to child development, she says, to have a relationship with both parents, "regardless of where they are." Speaking from her own experience of having a father incarcerated for 20 years, Davis says a parent "can be incredibly valuable from prison." Mentors need to realize that in most cases, "the incarcerated parent is going to come home and have a role."

Many people, Davis says, "are well intentioned and really care about these kids and think our parents are horrible. They shouldn't be mentoring. Who should be mentoring are people who…[not only believe] these kids have incredible potential but also understand that people can make mistakes and pay for them and still be good parents."

Mentor Training

CWLA has developed a mentor training curriculum (available on CWLA's website at cop_currentactivities.htm) that seeks to blend the best of what is known about mentoring and about working with the families of prisoners, says coauthor Adalist-Estrin. The curriculum is available with six master trainers to show mentoring programs how to train mentors to work successfully with children of prisoners.

The first part of the curriculum educates volunteers about mentoring, the children of prisoners, their families, the importance of the parent-child bond, and racial and ethnic issues.

The second part, designed ideally for use after mentoring begins, discusses building relationships and doing activities with kids; encouraging practical ways to connect with the incarcerated parent, where appropriate; and the role of faith in children's lives.

The curriculum asks mentors to think about how family relationships and "triangling" will affect their efforts. "We keep asking, as a mentor, how would you need to connect with the caregiver around this issue [and] how would this be different if the child had contact with her incarcerated parent?" Adalist-Estrin says.

Mentors role-play their reactions to certain scenarios based on real-life examples. For instance,
  • A 17-year-old girl tells her mentor, "My father found Islam in prison and doesn't want me to date."

  • The child's caregiver really doesn't want the mentor to pay for skating lessons because she can't afford it for her other children.

  • The child gives the mentor a cross pendant that was his mother's and says, "My mom gave me this, and I'm never going to see her again, so here, you can have it."
The curriculum stresses that mentors need to listen, respect the child's views, and be nonjudgmental. Noting how hard it may be "to understand why a child would love a parent who has done some terrible things and is now in jail or prison," the curriculum insists, "To support the child, you have to support his or her feelings about the incarcerated parent."

Mentoring these children is not easy. "It is not enough to come in with a good heart," Lee says. "You also need to be well-prepared."

Peter Slavin is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area.

"The Test of Time: Predictors and Effects of Duration in Youth Mentoring Programs." American Journal of Community Psychology (April 2002).


Amachi (which in Ibo means, "Who knows what God has brought us through this child") has proven remarkable in many ways since it started mentoring children of prisoners in Philadelphia in 2001. Its staff has gone into lockups to find children to mentor by talking to their parents. It has married secular institutions and African American churches. It has arranged for churches to mentor kids in their own neighborhoods, making the ministry more appealing.

Volunteers range from near millionaires to people who have to borrow bus fare to see their charges. One third of the mentors in the first two years were African American males, traditionally the hardest group to recruit as mentors.

Amachi's partners have an effective division of labor. The nonprofit Public/Private Ventures administers the project and is responsible for financial management, recruiting congregations and children, and collecting and analyzing the data used to monitor matches and chart overall progress. Each participating church commits to recruit 10 mentors from its congregation and to collect and submit monthly data on how often mentors and children meet. Congregations are also expected to support the volunteers, and each pastor names a volunteer coordinator.

Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) case managers screen, match, and train the mentors. They also supervise and support the matches by regularly contacting mentors, children, and caregivers to uncover and help resolve problems in the relationships.

A key to Amachi's success has been its director, Rev. W. Wilson Goode Sr. Himself the son of an incarcerated father, Goode had mentors who made a difference in his life. When he was 14 and his family was farming in North Carolina, his father went to jail for three years. A pastor and his wife became his mentors. They "taught me right from wrong and modeled the correct way to live," Goode says. They also encouraged him to go to college, taking up offerings to help with the costs of books, supplies, and transportation.

Goode facilitated the partnership between the churches and BBBS because of his credibility in both the secular and faith-based communities. A former two-term mayor of Philadelphia, he also has decades of involvement with inner-city churches. He has done most of the hard work of recruiting both the pastors and the children of prisoners.

On prison visits, Goode says parents respond strongly to his appeal. More than once, he says, when he has told inmates he is there for their kids, he has received a standing ovation.

"We've had parents write mentors thanking them for helping their children," Goode adds, "and we've had incarcerated parents ask to be mentors when they got out."

Two New Programs

New mentoring efforts in Arkansas and New York City illustrate the similarities and differences in what federal grantees are doing to mentor children of prisoners.

In New York, the Osborne Association, which assists prisoners' families, is partnering with Catholic Charities, which operates a Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) program for the Brooklyn-Queens archdiocese. They will provide mentors to 15 children this year, 30 in 2005, and 45 in 2006. The program seeks to bolster kids' relationships with their parents and support families.

"Mentoring alone is not sufficient for every child," says Osborne Family Services Director Carol Burton. "We believe it has to be supported by other services we can provide families."

Osborne recruits children from the families it serves. It assesses each family and each member, then makes a service plan. These assessments help Osborne match the child with the right mentor. Mentors are recruited from houses of worship, community organizations, and civic groups.

Mentors receive 10 hours of training, half of it about incarcerated families. Ongoing training and support of mentors includes monthly dinner meetings, where information is presented on issues of concern and mentors can give each other support and advice.

Mentors help children connect with incarcerated parents through letters, phone calls, and prison visits.

The largest federal grant went to the only statewide program, located in Arkansas. It will mentor 350 children at four locations through a five-way partnership. The nonprofit Center for Youth and Families manages the program; other partners are churches, BBBS, a parenting education facility, and Arkansas Voices, a grassroots advocacy group for prisoners and families.

The center has been working in prisons for 14 years and expects to recruit children easily through incarcerated parents. It will also recruit kids in detention and their siblings. As for mentors, it is targeting adults who were children of prisoners, people who have had an incarcerated friend or relative, church members, jail chaplains, and social work students.

Children will receive individual and group mentoring; the latter will focus on activities that improve literacy. Kids 12 - 15 will also perform community service, in part for what they will gain from it. The program will also include regular visits to parents in prison, plus exchanging videos and letters.

Mentors will have support groups, and staff will check in with them twice a week.

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