Report Looks at Mentoring Needs of Kids with Parents in Lock-Up

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A recently released report, “Mentoring Children of Incarcerated Parents,” provides recommendations for increasing the effectiveness of mentoring programs that serve children who have parents in jail or prison.

The report, authored by researchers with the American Institutes for Research, the University of Minnesota and the Institute for Health Research and Policy, and funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), features a thorough review of the literature on mentoring for children with incarcerated parents.

A Sept. 2013 "Listening Session" hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Domestic Policy Council was also incorporated into the report. More than 40 people, including mentoring organization representatives and those designated as Champions of Change for Children of Incarcerated Parents by the White House last summer, contributed to the day-long session.

Over the last 20 years, the number of children in the nation with an incarcerated parent has steadily risen, the authors of the report say. They estimate 1.7 million kids currently have at least one parent serving a prison sentence, and “millions more” have a mother or father in jail. African-American youths are at substantially greater risk, the report states; black youths are three times more likely than Hispanic youths to have an incarcerated parent, and nearly seven times likelier to have an incarcerated parent than white youths.

Prior research suggests young people with incarcerated parents are more likely to have worse mental and physical health outcomes than their peers, as well as perform worse in school. The children of incarcerated parents, the report indicates, are also at greater risk of engaging in delinquent and antisocial behavior.

The report produced three specific policy recommendations for youths with imprisoned parents: the development of “strategic supports” to enhance mentoring programs, the cultivation of a “community of practice” for mentoring children with incarcerated parents and greater investments in research to pinpoint evidence-based models for mentoring children with moms and dads behind bars.

The findings, the authors state, show mentoring is a valuable resource for young people with incarcerated parents -- although working with the population does pose specific counseling challenges.

“Children of incarcerated parents are as likely as other youth to have the kinds of positive experiences in their relationships with mentors that contribute to positive outcomes,” the report says. “At the same time, attention to special considerations that may arise in mentoring children of incarcerated parents is warranted.”

The authors urge monitoring and support systems include personalized staff check-ins not only with mentors, but with the family of the youth as well.

The authors of the study, however, note that evidence-based research regarding best practices for the population is limited. Substantial investments, the report states, are necessary to fill in current knowledge gaps, beginning with a firmer “foundational understanding and documentation” of the overall effectiveness of mentoring as an intervention for the population.

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