Prison Break

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As mentoring’s popularity continues to soar, perhaps no one is getting more attention than children of prisoners. Programs for those youth have grown exponentially over the past six years, thanks largely to the Amachi program and the Bush administration.

When Amachi was launched in Philadelphia in 2000 to focus on mentoring children of prisoners, few programs specifically targeted those youth. Today, Amachi says, its faith-based model is being carried out in more than 100 communities around the country. President Bush has taken up the cause as well, promoting the concept in speeches and through the creation in 2003 of the Mentoring Children of Prisoners program in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). That program has provided more than $100 million to 221 agencies, according to the ACF.

The Amachi and federally funded sites include everything from affiliates of Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Girl Scouts and the YMCA to community groups that had never done formal youth mentoring.

Why all this attention? In 1999, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that federal and state prisons held more than 720,000 parents, who had an estimated 1.5 million children among them. About 70 percent of those children “will likely follow their parents’ path into jail or prison,” Amachi says.

“You’re obviously moving towards epidemic proportions,” says Harry Wilson, the associate commissioner in charge of ACF’s Family and Youth Services Bureau, which oversees the program. “The major goal is that we make some sort of a dent in the cycle of incarceration.”

But finding those children, and convincing them and their families to enroll in mentoring, has posed a significant challenge to youth workers. “The biggest problem for us is getting the kids,” says D. Marie Goff, executive director of Cra-Wa-La Volunteers in Probation, in Lawrenceville, Ill.

One obstacle, she says, is that many children and their parents don’t want to be singled out for this distinction. “If you’re poor, you’re ostracized,” Goff says. “Try to be poor and the child of an incarcerated parent.”

That’s one reason that some programs that get the federal grants through ACF, – such as Cra-Wa-La Volunteers, haven’t created enough mentor/mentee matches to meet their obligations under those grants.

Some agencies, such as Project Aware, in Memphis, Tenn., get referrals of children from government agencies, such as child welfare and corrections. In the Bronx, N.Y., workers from the SALSA program fan out at sites where families await buses to visit relatives in prison. Cra-Wa-La visits prisons to talk with parents about enrolling their children.

Having found children, the next challenge is to find and train mentors. Agencies routinely canvass churches and neighborhoods, using fliers, posters, advertisements and mailings.

Exacerbating the already difficult task of getting adults to commit time to mentoring is their fear of getting involved with children of convicts. Program administrators say mentoring candidates ask: Will the child steal things from my house? Will the father come home from prison and be angry about our relationship?

Another complication is that many of the volunteers come from different backgrounds than the youth, especially in terms of race and economics. About 60 percent of the people in state and federal prisons and jails are black or Hispanic, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. At many mentoring programs, most of the volunteers are white.

As with all forms of mentoring, “there is a real need for mentors of color” for children of prisoners, Curtis Porter, director of the Youth Services Division at ACF, told a gathering of mentoring grantees in Washington earlier this year. “Cross-racial mentoring does work, but our grantees feel there is a need for more African-American and Latino mentors.”

That’s why training of mentors is especially important. In Minnesota, Bridge Builders for Kids, which drafts suburban church-goers to mentor inner-city children, conducts “relationship-building activities” at camps for the youths and their mentors.

Getting the agencies themselves up to speed has been a challenge as well. The federal funding – $50 million this year for the three-year grants – and the promotion of this mentoring concept has brought many newcomers to the field. “I think what we failed to realize is that it took about a year for those programs to get up and running” after they got grants, Wilson says.

Public/Private Ventures, which runs the national Amachi initiative, operates the Amachi Training Institute in Philadelphia for people who operate the model.

Wilson believes the emphasis on helping this segment of youth has motivated agencies to seek out kids they once shied away from. He says the most troubled kids often respond the most positively to mentoring.

“When you turn the corner with a tough kid,” Wilson says, “they actually make a bigger swing.”
Following is a look at how several agencies carry out their programs.

Drug Prevention

SALSA Mentoring at Phoenix House
Bronx, N.Y.
(718) 364-6401

The Approach: Save a Life from Substance Abuse (SALSA) is a mentoring program serving low-income, culturally diverse Bronx neighborhoods. To find children of prisoners, SALSA recruiters approach crowds of families waiting to be bused upstate to visit jailed relatives. To meet the challenge of attracting quality mentors, Program Director Olga Pimentel recruits at the volunteer fairs of nearby colleges.

It’s helpful to match a mentor with a child from a similar cultural background, Pimentel says, but not always possible. Pimentel says she is lucky to have a good number of bilingual mentors who can communicate with caregivers who don’t speak English. Mentors get three hours of basic training based on the Big Brothers Big Sisters model, followed by monthly mentor support group meetings that cover such topics as “setting boundaries” and “cultural sensitivity.”

SALSA mentors commit to eight hours a month with a mentee for at least one year. Pimentel organizes face-to-face meetings with mentors about once every three months.

SALSA also offers tutoring, drug resistance workshops and volunteer opportunities. Recently, Pimentel says kids in the program collected cell phones for victims of domestic violence and read at a nearby daycare facility.

Pimentel says the biggest challenges for SALSA have been communicating with families involved and making sure kids complete the program. For families without phones, “It’s very difficult for us to stay in touch with them,” Pimentel says. “You have to rely on letters asking the family to call you back.”

When incarcerated parents are released, it can present a problem, Pimentel says. One family had three kids in the program who were suddenly and prematurely pulled out after their father returned home. Pimentel says she worked hard to reassure the mentors and urge them to try to achieve some kind of closure with the kids, but that one mentor had left the program over the incident.

History and Organization: Phoenix House, which bills itself as the nation’s largest nonprofit substance abuse treatment organization, has been operating a prevention and community service program in New York since 2000, with a mentoring component since 2002. SALSA staff have attended Amachi training programs.

Youth Served: SALSA has 23 mentoring matches serving kids from ages 7 to 17. Half of the youth come from Spanish-speaking families.

Staff: Pimentel is the only employee who works exclusively on SALSA, but she is supported by Frank Negron, senior director of Phoenix House’s Prevention and Community Services division, as well as AmeriCorps volunteers.

Funding: SALSA was initially supported with a Safe and Drug-Free Schools grant from the U.S. Department of Education and did not focus exclusively on children of prisoners. Now the organization is funded by a Mentoring Children of Prisoners grant of $124,000 annually. SALSA matches 33 percent of the grant with Phoenix House funds, private donations, and in-kind services. The total annual budget is $165,000.

Indicators of Success: There has been no overall evaluation of the mentoring program. Pimentel says several students have dramatically improved their academic performance since they began the program.

School Partnership

Children of Promise
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
(319) 558-2174

The Approach: In order to coordinate a mentoring program, Daniel Pledge-Johnson believes you have to be a bit of a mentor yourself. At Johnson School of the Arts, Children of Promise’s partner school, Pledge-Johnson can often be seen eating with students in the cafeteria or playing with them outside at recess.

“I decided that I was going to be a friend first,” Pledge-Johnson says. Because of the personal access he has to kids, Pledge-Johnson sees lots of advantages to basing himself at the school. “I’ve got kids coming to me now, letting me know that they have an incarcerated parent,” he says.

When it comes to matching kids to mentors, Pledge-Johnson says his familiarity with the kids helps him handpick compatible adults. He looks at factors like who’s a talker, who’s a listener, and who likes sports. “If a mentor cannot play basketball I will not match him with a child that plays basketball,” Pledge-Johnson says. “You will short-circuit a relationship right there.”

Pledge-Johnson attributes the close partnership with the school partly to the principal, Melissa Gilbert, who is a mentor herself.

Children of Promise mentors are required to meet with kids for one hour a week and maintain a minimum one-year relationship. Although Pledge-Johnson works with the Johnson School, the mentoring relationships are carried out throughout the community.

History and Organization: Children of Promise began in July 2004, having gotten started with a federal Mentoring Children of Prisoners grant of $45,000, and began delivering services the next year. It is funded through the Community Corrections Improvement Association, a private foundation arm of the Iowa Department of Correctional Services. Among other things, the department helps run background checks on potential mentors.

Youth Served: Children of Promise has about 32 mentor matches. The children are recruited from 6- to 12-year-olds at Johnson school, and the 4- to 15-year-old siblings of eligible children are also welcomed into the program. To meet grant requirements, Pledge-Johnson will need to serve 50 children by next summer.

Staff: Nancy Scheumann, who has worked in mentoring for 24 years, is the mentor coordinator of Children of Promise. She and Pledge-Johnson are the only staff members of the program.

Funding: Children of Promise is funded by a Family and Youth Services Bureau grant for $45,000 a year for three years. Additional support comes from the nearby Rockwell Collins Foundation with a grant of $15,000 per year for two years.

Indicators of Success: No formal evaluation has been conducted. Children of Promise requires mentors to keep journals of their progress and experiences, and Pledge-Johnson makes monthly check-up calls.

Family Focus 

Project Aware Mentoring Program
Memphis, Tenn.
(901) 726-6191 

The Approach: Andrea Payne says she’s been “standing on a soapbox” trying to get people to mentor children of prisoners since 1989. That’s the year Payne and Yvonne Howard founded Families of Incarcerated Individuals, four years after the two women met while visiting their incarcerated spouses. Children soon became the main focus of the group, which offers such services as one-on-one mentoring, monthly group activities and tutoring.

Children with incarcerated parents or immediate family members are referred to Project Aware Mentoring Program (PAMP), the group’s mentoring arm, by the state departments of Health Services and of Children’s Services.

Finding mentors, Payne says, is more of a challenge. “We ask everybody you can,” Payne says, through methods including billboards, bus stop ads, mailings and word of mouth. Project Aware developed its own training over the years, culminating in one eight-hour session covering such issues as child abuse, diversity, the impact of incarceration, conflict resolution and time management.

Mentors must spend at least two hours a week with their matches, though Payne says the average time is longer. Even after their parents are released, Payne says some kids stay on with PAMP. “They become permanent members of the program,” she says. 

PAMP mentors have requirements for how they spend time with their “protégés” – two hours per month must be spent on a “social/cultural enrichment activity,” and the pair must work on a community service project two times a year. Payne says these requirements may overlap, so that planning a picnic for African-American History Month, for example, could count in both categories.

History and Organization: Families of Incarcerated Individuals incorporated in 1990. Payne says the group was doing some mentoring when a U.S. Department of Education grant in 1995 allowed it to officially launch the Project Aware Mentoring Program. The new money meant more matches and more financial support for mentors, who began receiving a stipend for their outings with children. The group partners with the Exchange Club of Memphis, a mental health care center that provides support to those children who need more than a mentor can provide.

Youth Served: PAMP has 87 matches in the Memphis area, with kids ranging from ages 5 to 18.

Staff: Four full-time staffers work with Payne at Families of Incarcerated Individuals: a program director, an administrative assistant and two case managers.

Funding: PAMP receives $175,000 annually from the federal Mentoring Children of Prisoners grant. The organization matches the federal grant through small local grants and fundraising, bringing the total annual budget to $350,000.

Indicators of Success: In association with LeMoyne-Owen College, Families of Incarcerated Individuals conducts evaluations of mentoring pairs. “We look at the length of the relationships and how they worked out and what the children are doing after,” Payne says. She says that overall, the youth are doing less “hanging out” on the streets.


Bridge Builders for Kids
Lake City, Minn.
(651) 345-5441

The Approach: When Jeff Bremer, who grew up on a farm, first volunteered with at-risk youth, he confesses he was scared. He went into it thinking, “What am I going to have in common with these inner-city kids?” But the experience was so positive for Bremer that he now works full time to replicate it for others. As assistant director of Bridge Builders, Bremer introduces populations that might never otherwise meet: mostly suburban church-goers and inner-city children of prisoners.

Bridge Builders promotes its events at local prisons and churches. Interested inmates provide contact information for their children’s caregivers. Participating children then meet potential mentors in a relaxed, recreational setting, such as a camp. The mixer helps both sides, Bremer says, building trust in the families of prisoners and introducing potential volunteers to an opportunity they know little about. “A lot of the time people don’t even realize they’re interested in mentoring,” Bremer says.

Bridge Builders provides a five-hour mentor training session through Life Coaches for Kids, a Christian mentoring group. Training covers the basics of mentoring and provides resources such as talk sheets with conversation starters. Once paired, mentors and children decide where to meet and what to do together, with the mentor committing to two hours per week for at least one year.

History and Organization: Bridge Builders’ parent organization, Coyote Ridge Christian Ranch, started out in 1998 running day camps for inner-city youth. Coyote Ridge became a nonprofit corporation in 2000, and in 2001 began hosting camps for children of prisoners and their families. In 2003, Coyote Ridge Christian Ranch founded Bridge Builders to mentor children of prisoners. It won its federal grant in 2004.

At first, Bremer says, the organization had a hard time finding children to enroll in the program. He says the arrangement that allows Bridge Builders to make presentations at prisons has been extremely successful. Bremer says the group also learned to be more aggressive in recruiting families after getting contact information, by using home visits as well as phone calls.

Youth Served: Bridge Builders has 25 mentoring matches in Minneapolis/St. Paul and the fledgling Rochester County branch. The group focuses primarily on 5- to 10-year-olds.

Staff: Bremer, Executive Director Steve Wilson, a program coordinator and an office director, along with help from church volunteers. The Salvation Army sponsors some of the events for mentors, youths and their families, and offers services to the children’s caregivers to help them, for instance, become self-sufficient.

Funding: Bridge Builders runs on a budget of $300,000 a year, half of which comes from the federal Mentoring Children of Prisoners grant, which it first received in 2004. As dictated by the grant, Bridge Builders matches the government funds, raising $50,000 annually from churches, businesses and individuals and getting an estimated $100,000 in in-kind services.

Indicators of Success: Bridge Builders checks up on its mentors every few months, and Life Coaches for Kids has developed a database system which will be used to track the effects of mentoring.