Children with parents in prison find help from mentoring program

Issue August 2005 By Andrea R. Barter, Esq.

The numbers are sobering: Bureau of Justice statistics estimate that 2.3 million children are affected by the 1.1 million parents doing time in prisons or jails. A U.S. Senate report indicates that without appropriate modeling from a responsible adult, these children are six times more likely than other children to become incarcerated at some point in their lives.

Last October, Wayside Youth & Family Support Network implemented a mentoring program for Massachusetts children with an incarcerated parent. The goal: help them avoid becoming yet another statistic.

Wayside is a non-profit, nationally accredited human service agency providing individual and family counseling, youth residential programs, and prevention education to children, youth and families across eastern and central Massachusetts.

According to Anne Graham, Wayside Community Links program director, the Mentoring Children of Prisoners program connects each youth with an adult who can provide counsel, support and positive reinforcement, and be a constructive example.

“Mentoring helps these children make healthy attachments and have a positive role model in their lives….Our mentors are good listeners, who care, who want to bring out the strength and resiliency of the child they are working with,” said Graham.

Much like a “Big Brothers/Big Sisters” program, the mentors commit to at least an hour a week with the child, engaging in activities and being a friend.

But the mentors also act as family liaisons, alerting Wayside to family needs that may not be met in the absence of the incarcerated parent. Wayside can provide residential programs, as well as individual, group and family counseling, home-based outreach services, substance abuse treatment, prevention programs, trauma intervention services and teen parent programs.

There are no socioeconomic requirements for children to be enrolled in the mentoring program. To qualify, children need only be between the ages of four and 15 and have an incarcerated parent. Mentors must be at least 18, pass a CORI check and a federal fingerprint check, and undergo training.

One issue mentors are sensitized to is potential resentment from incarcerated parents, who may feel they have lost control of all aspects of their lives, including their children. But as mentor Alice Sapienza, professor of management and health administration at Simmons College, Boston, points out, mentors don’t usurp a parent’s role, they complement it.

Graham added, “We try hard to build a relationship with the parent or guardian. Ninety percent of the whole thing is based on relationships and trust.”

Sapienza thinks her mentoring role is similar to that of a godparent: a trusted person outside the family who has an arm’s-length perspective of the family and is there for the child.

Paired with an adventuresome, bright nine-year-old, Sapienza enjoys being a reliable, stable presence in the child’s life. The mentoring program “is a way I can give back that is hopefully of benefit to the child and is certainly a joy to me,” said Sapienza.