In September 2013, a Listening Session on Mentoring Children of Incarcerated Parents was held in Washington, DC. This session was organized by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in partnership with the White House Domestic Policy Council and Office of Public Engagement. It continues the administration’s commitment to support youth with incarcerated parents and to ensure that all young people get the best possible start in life. The day-long session comprised more than 40 participants and was co-facilitated by the first two authors of this report. Participants included:
This report summarizes both the research and stakeholder input shared during the Listening Session and offers recommendations to further advance the availability and effectiveness of mentoring for children of incarcerated parents. The organization of the report largely follows the agenda of the Listening Session, provided in the appendix. The Listening Session began with brief overviews of research on children of incarcerated parents (Dr. Shlafer) as well as mentoring programs and relationships for youth in general (Dr. DuBois) and for children with incarcerated parents specifically (Dr. Jarjoura). Following an opportunity to discuss the presentations, participants were asked to share their views concerning the significance and most important features of mentoring relationships in the lives of children with incarcerated parents. Next, Drs. Jarjoura and DuBois facilitated an in-depth participant discussion on specific areas of program infrastructure and practice as they pertain to effectively mentoring this population. The session concluded with participants sharing their views regarding the most important next steps for making high-quality mentoring available to children of incarcerated parents. It should be noted that the recommendations included in this report, although informed by the perspectives of session participants, are solely those of the report’s authors.
- Officials from relevant government agencies and departments;
- Individuals recognized by the White House in June 2013 as Champions of Change for Children of Incarcerated Parents;
- Representatives from mentoring organizations and other programs with experience serving children with incarcerated parents and their families; and
- Youth who were current or previous participants in two of the mentoring programs represented, along with their mentors and family members.
RESEARCH AND BACKGROUND: CHILDREN OF INCARCERATED PARENTS AND MENTORING
Parents may be incarcerated in correctional facilities at either the local or state level and the length of incarceration varies by type of facility. Jails are locally-operated correctional facilities and sentences to jail (typically for misdemeanors) are usually one year or shorter, whereas prisons (state or federal) are typically further away and generally involve sentences (typically for felonies) that are longer than one year. The number of youth who have an incarcerated parent has grown considerably over the past two decades. It is estimated that 1.7 million youth in the United States have at least one parent currently in prison and that millions more have a parent in jail. As a group, these youth fare worse than other youth on a range of immediate and longer-term outcomes that relate to mental and physical health as well as educational achievement. Evidence suggests that, in combination with other sources of risk and adversity, the incarceration of a parent can increase the likelihood that youth become involved in antisocial and delinquent behavior. Yet, it is clear that parental incarceration affects families in different ways and that experiences before, during, and after incarceration contribute to youths’ outcomes. Furthermore, as many youth faced with the incarceration of a parent do well, a parent’s incarceration is clearly not an insurmountable barrier to a young person realizing his or her full potential.
The broader research literature supports mentoring programs as a promising form of support for youth with incarcerated parents. Findings indicate that participation in a mentoring program can benefit a young person in several different areas, including emotional well-being, social relationships, avoiding problem behavior, and academic achievement. Research also suggests the following specific qualities of mentoring relationships are important for fostering positive youth outcomes:
Recognition of the potential benefits of additional adult support and guidance in the context of a parent’s incarceration has inspired a number of initiatives to make high-quality mentoring (as summarized above) available to youth who are faced with this life circumstance. The evidence available regarding the effectiveness of mentoring as a form of support for children with incarcerated parents specifically is limited and best regarded as preliminary. Available findings are, however, encouraging because they point to a range of potential benefits that are similar to those observed in the much more extensive body of research that has evaluated mentoring program outcomes for youth in general. Many of the youth at the Listening Session, furthermore, spoke with conviction about the ways they had been influenced positively–often in ways that transformed their development and futures—from their involvement in mentoring programs that were represented. Session participants also emphasized how, in their experience, essentially all of the features of high-quality mentoring relationships suggested by research are instrumental to ensuring that children with incarcerated parents benefit from their program experiences and, importantly, are shielded from unintended harm (e.g., feelings of abandonment stemming from lack of mentor follow-through on commitments).
- Active guidance (mentor efforts to build mentee’s skills and facilitate development of mentee’s character and values; mentor helping mentee to set and work toward personal goals)
- Advocacy (efforts to identity and address a mentee’s needs for services and resources and foster the mentee’s skills for self-advocacy)
- Closeness/emotional connection (mentor and mentee caring for one another)
- Collaborative/developmental orientation (responsiveness to mentee’s interests; cultivation of mentee’s strengths and sense of contribution)
- Consistency (mentor follow-through and trustworthiness)
- Longevity (extended duration of relationship)
- Parent engagement (mentor efforts to partner with mentee’s primary caregiver in meeting mentee’s needs; demonstrating respect for the caregiver’s wishes and caregiver-child relationship).
- Positive role modeling (mentor exhibiting personal integrity, healthy behaviors, and concern for others)
SUPPORTING HIGH-QUALITY MENTORING RELATIONSHIPS FOR CHILDREN OF INCARCERATED PARENTS
Much has been learned about the ways to design and manage mentoring programs to maximize the potential for meaningful and effective mentoring relationships. Along with the critical need for adequate organizational infrastructure, research suggests that attention to practices in several different areas (recruitment, screening, matching, training, structure and supports for mentoring activities, monitoring and support, family engagement, external partnerships, and closure) is important for ensuring the quality of mentoring relationships and thereby positive youth outcomes. During the Listening Session, participants emphasized specific aspects within these areas as both particularly important and challenging in making high-quality mentoring available to children of incarcerated parents. These include:
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- Taking into account the complexities of the home and family situations when a parent is incarcerated, including how this may influence the experience for mentors, and establishing realistic expectations when recruiting prospective mentors.
- Screening and intake procedures that ensure that prospective mentors have the time, commitment, and personal qualities to be effective mentors and that consider the possibility that suitable mentors may be adults with similar backgrounds as the youth and may already be known to them (e.g., relatives or acquaintances).
- Being attentive to how the experience of having an incarcerated parent may shape youths’ openness to, and expectations about, a relationship with an adult mentor and using this and other information to match youth with mentors whose characteristics and backgrounds are appropriate to their needs.
- Providing training that prepares mentors to be supportive of children with incarcerated parents—to understand their own personal biases and views about incarcerated parents as well as the cultural attitudes and values of the youth they will serve and how to respond when issues arise (e.g., when to contact staff, how to make referrals, how to listen non-judgmentally, and so on).
- Having structured support for mentors working with children of incarcerated parents and providing targeted preparation for mentors to support these youth effectively—this includes ensuring that mentors understand how mentoring fits in with other support systems in place and with family/caregiver needs.
- Establishing clear expectations about the regularity and amount of contact that should occur between mentor and youth as well as the duration of the relationship—especially given that when youth experience the kind of disruption in their relationships with adults that is sometimes associated with having an incarcerated parent, consistency and predictability as well as a long-term commitment may be necessary for youth to cultivate open and trusting relationships with their mentors.
- Entering into partnerships between the mentoring agencies and other organizations is particularly important when serving this population, especially in terms of building the support that youth with incarcerated parents need to be successful in the school setting.
- Providing a structured process for closing the mentoring relationship so that it acknowledges the contributions of both mentor and mentee and gives both a chance to reflect on the experience, keeping in mind that because children of incarcerated parents sometimes have a background of strained and disrupted relationships with adults, it is critical that relationships they experience with mentors be healthy and positive in all aspects, including their closure.