Children of Prisoners Vouchers Fall Short

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A voucher program designed to expand the availability of mentors for children whose parents are incarcerated is bogged down by in-fighting among various mentoring groups and has fallen extremely short of its intended use.

Since 2003, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has spent $257 million under the Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCP) program, which provides three-year grants to faith-based and community organizations and to state and local governments to link youth who have parents in jail or prison with caring adult mentors.

In its most recent reauthorization, Congress gave HHS authority to distribute a portion of the MCP funds as vouchers – $5 million for fiscal 2008, rising to $10 million in fiscal 2009 and $15 million annually thereafter.

To date, MCP has distributed just 289 of these Caregiver’s Choice vouchers to caregivers and youths, according to Angie Hess, a staff member with Dare Mighty Things, a private consultant that is operating Caregiver’s Choice with MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership. That falls far short of the goal of 3,000 vouchers planned for the first year and is a tiny fraction of the 24,000 vouchers that MENTOR said it planned to hand out over three years.

The U.S. Administration for Children and Families, the HHS agency that oversees the program, said it will try to reach the congressionally mandated goal by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The voucher program targets seven areas, selected because they have high concentrations of incarcerated people and few eligible children receiving mentoring: Massachusetts/Connecticut, Philadelphia, Atlanta, North Carolina, Chicago, Arizona and Idaho/Washington.

In authorizing the vouchers, HHS officials said, they intended to open the program to as many as 4,000 organizations that do mentoring, not just the few that had won federal grants for mentoring.

But some groups that receive federal grants fear that the voucher system is “stealing kids they could be working with,” according to Hess.

Participating in Caregiver’s Choice, moreover, is not easy. Mentoring agencies can receive voucher payments of up to $1,000 over 12 months for a “successful” match, which is less than the $1,500 per-match payment allowed under MCP. Agencies that get vouchers have to meet different and in some ways stricter requirements than those under the MCP program. That includes FBI fingerprint-based background checks for adult mentors, participation in five surveys and use of a specific software program to track matches, all of which cost time and money.

“So as long as our agencies are being cautious and really review this, then this could work,” said Joseph Radelet, vice president of mentoring programs for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. “It’s not simple.”

Contact: Melissa Hall, Caregiver’s Choice (703) 224-2200,