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Helping the Hidden Victims: Mentoring the Children of Prisoners

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Clayton* is a bright, well-rounded ten-year old. He loves playing with his GameBoy and shooting hoops in the alley behind his house. Last year he started to get really excited about his reading assignments in school. But lately his mother has noticed some disturbing changes in his behavior. Ever since his father was sent to prison on drug charges a few months ago, Clayton has been moody. He can't seem to concentrate on his homework, he's having trouble sleeping and on several occasions, he's flown into a rage and hit his little brother. Clayton's mother, who is struggling to make ends meet and provide some stability for her family, is worried that her son is confused and suffering because of his father's absence.

She has good reason for concern. Research confirms what common sense tells us: the physical absence of a parent has profound negative effects on a child's development. Add to this the social stigma of parental incarceration and the extent of trauma increases geometrically. In addition, a parent's arrest often is part of a larger picture of pre-existing family difficulty and dysfunction characterized by poverty, violence, instability, substance abuse or prior separations. The effects on children are devastating. Children raised under these circumstances may lose the ability to form healthy attachments to others because they do not develop a sense of basic trust that their most critical needs will be met. They find it hard to achieve in school and tend to act out their anger, leading to on run-ins with the police. The final results are telling: the children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely than others to become prisoners themselves.

This problem is growing. Between 1991 and 1999, the number of children with a parent in a federal or state correctional facility increased by more than 100 percent, from about 900,000 to about 2,000,000. And more often than not, incarceration means at least a temporary end to parent-child contact: statistics indicate that less than 50 percent of prisoners receive visits from their children. In some cases, this is because the caregiver may not want the child to visit the inmate; in others, the prison is just too far away to make visits affordable or practical. So what can we as a society do to prevent children from becoming the hidden victims of their parents' crimes?

The Bush Administration believes that above all else, these children need positive adult role models who can help them beat the odds. To that end, the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families will be awarding 10 million dollars to match the children of prisoners with 100,000 mentors who will develop caring, supportive, one-on-one relationships with these children and, we believe, restore their hopes for the future.

Here's how the program will work: faith and community-based organizations, tribal governments and state and local governments are eligible to apply for the money. Those entities that receive funds will respond to referrals from a variety of sources-parents, either in prison or not, caretakers, schools, courts, social service agencies or religious congregations. The mentoring organization will set up and monitor the matches between mentors and children. These mentors must have received training and will be overseen and supported by the organization as challenges arise. The mentoring organization must make sure that all potential mentors have been screened for child and domestic abuse and other criminal history. Each mentor will be required to make at least a one-year commitment with, at a minimum, once weekly contact with the child with whom he or she is matched.

The mentors will have unique opportunities to make a difference in these children's lives. We would expect them to act as models of responsible adult behavior by demonstrating the elements of a safe and trusting relationship, practicing healthy and enjoyable social behavior, giving guidance as needed, encouraging the pursuit of education and participating with the child in civic activities that benefit others in the community.

Mentors are not meant to be "replacement parents." In fact, we would expect the mentoring organizations to develop a plan for the whole family, including not only mentors for the children but also ways to connect the child with the imprisoned parent (with permission, of course) and support services for the rest of the family.

There is ample evidence that people want to be mentors and that mentoring works. A recent survey found that 57 million Americans would seriously consider becoming a mentor and that 99 percent of mentors consider the job so rewarding that they would recommend it to others. Further, we know that mentoring increases regular school attendance and academic achievement while at the same time decreasing the likelihood that youth will be self-destructive or violent. Data show that mentoring programs reduce first time drug use by almost 50 percent and first time alcohol use by 33 percent. These results alone are sufficient indicators of success.

We are convinced that many children like Clayton who are confused, sad and angry need encouragement and support right now. We believe that our mentoring program will do much to stop the hurt and begin the healing.
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