Policy Corner: How Amachi serves the needs of children of incarcerated parents

W. Wilson Goode Sr.

Policy Corner: How Amachi serves the needs of children of incarcerated parents

by. W. Wilson Goode Sr.

About 10.7 million U.S. children ages eighteen and under have at least one parent who is under some form of supervision by the criminal justice system.  More than 1.7 million of these children have a parent who is incarcerated in a federal or state prison or a local jail.  The majority of children in these situations are very young: more than half are less than ten years old, and more than 20 percent are younger than age five.

Many of these children share the challenges faced by the larger population of this country’s at-risk young people including poverty, violence, limited opportunities for an adequate education, and a future that appears to hold very little promise. But children with a parent who is incarcerated or under supervision often face additional risks. In many cases, they have suffered the unique trauma of seeing a parent arrested and taken away.  And with a parent’s incarceration, their connection to a central adult in their lives has been cut off.  While a parent is in prison, children might live with a grandparent, aunt or uncle, the other parent, or in a foster home or other facility. Some are separated from their siblings.  Some are shifted from one caregiving arrangement to another.  Often the caregivers are likely to be living in poverty and lacking the personal resources necessary to meet the children’s needs.

Those needs can be complex.  While research on the specific challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents is still in its early stages, studies suggest they suffer from a particular form of grief and loss that comes from having a parent who is alive but unreachable.  The children may experience a complex mix of anger, sadness, shame guilt and depression.  As a result, they often act out inappropriately and have classroom behavior difficulties and low academic performance. Not surprisingly, many of these youth end up in serious trouble themselves. In fact, according to a U.S. Senate report, children of prisoners are six times as likely as other children to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. Without effective intervention strategies, as many as 70 percent of these children will become involved with the criminal justice system.  At one prison in Eastern Pennsylvania, men from three generations of the same family – a grandfather, his son, and his grandson – met for the very first time when they found themselves locked away in the same prison.

The number of children at risk in these ways is certain to grow.  The nation’s prison population is increasing by almost 6 percent a year – and the number of women in prison is increasing even faster, having more than doubled since 1990.  Since women are far more likely to have been a child’s custodial parent before entering prison than men, the growing number of women in prison has led to even more children who have lost the central adult in their lives.

Despite their numbers and the intensified risks they face, these children have remained mostly invisible to policymakers, social service organizations, and sometimes even to their own communities.  The Child Welfare League of America has cited several factors that combine to hide them from view.  Some factors are institutional: the criminal justice system has not traditionally been concerned with inmates’ family relationship, and there is also a lack of communication between prisons and child welfare agencies. Other factors are a result of deeply ingrained personal feelings: children and other relatives feel shame about incarcerated family members and fear of being stigmatized.  Thus, they tend to remain silent and reluctant to ask for assistance.  Therefore, mentoring organizations must use external sources such as visitations to prisons to help identify children placed at risk by the incarceration of a parent.

In 1999, with generous funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) a national nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the effectiveness of social policies and programs, began developing a mentoring program for children of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated parents in Philadelphia.  This mentoring program would later be replicated nationwide.  The initiative was named Amachi – a West African word that means “who knows but what God has brought us through this child.”  Volunteers would be recruited from city congregations to provide one-to-one mentoring to the children.  And beyond being a primary source of mentors, local congregations would be key partners in the initiative.

There were several reasons the Amachi program sought significant involvement from churches.  In the communities where the mentored children live, the church is often the most important remaining institution.  Local congregations have long been a valued source of volunteers who are forces for positive change.  Church volunteers help feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless.  They run daycare centers, build housing for senior citizens, and operate after school programs.  Thus, it was logical to believe congregations that see their missions as extending beyond the walls of their buildings and into their communities would respond to Amachi’s vision of providing crucial support for children in their neighborhoods.

Why Mentoring?

Because children of incarcerated parents have not, until recently, been recognized as a specific group with special needs, there is little knowledge about what interventions might measurably improve their prospects in life.  But what is known is that, in many cases, these children are attempting to grow up without a steady, reliable adult in their lives.  And there’s no question that a consistent, nurturing relationship with a dependable adult is an essential developmental support for children.

Evidence has shown that mentors can make a tangible difference in young people’s lives.  In the mid-1990s, P/PV conducted a study of the work of the nationally known mentoring organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA).  The results showed that having a mentor – a consistently caring and supportive adult – significantly reduced a young person’s initiation of drug and alcohol use, improved school performance and attendance, and reduced incidences of violence.  Given these realities, mentoring would seem to be a promising approach for responding to the challenges facing children with an incarcerated parent.

Amachi adopted the motto, “People of Faith Mentoring Children of Promise.”  And the project – a partnership of P/PV, BBBSA, and the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (CRRUCS) at the University of Pennsylvania – got up and running at a rapid pace.  It began recruiting churches in November 2000; by April 2011 the first mentors were meeting with youth.  By the end of January 2002, Amachi was already operating in 42 churches and had made almost 400 matches throughout Philadelphia.

The Amachi program’s innovative design includes these key elements:

  1. The support and involvement of faith-based congregations from the youngster’s own or nearby neighborhoods.  Drawing on a sense of compassion and spiritual mission, these congregations provide the volunteer mentors for the Amachi program.
  2. The promotion of strong personal relationships between youth and their mentors. Following the one-to-one community-based model widely implemented by Big Brothers Big Sisters, Amachi pairs children and adults in mentoring relationships that require frequent and regular contact between the adult mentor and the child. These relationships last up to a year – and sometimes longer.
  3. Professional case management and support for each pairing to help ensure that the child, his or her family, and the mentor can all work together harmoniously. The model brings a secular organization with administrative and management acumen (usually Big Brothers Big Sisters) to partner with members of local congregations to mentor children of inmates.

Of course, the heart of this approach is matching each child with a loving and caring adult.  Research shows that if a loving and caring adult spends at least one hour once per week with a child in a mentoring relationship (or at least two hours twice per month), that child is more likely to achieve success.  Local congregations provide the volunteer mentors, and the secular agency provides administrative infrastructure to investigate the backgrounds of volunteers, conduct interviews, provide training, do the matching and supply mentor support.

Spreading the Mentoring Message

Amachi’s impact has also reached beyond the congregations and the children who are directly involved.  The program’s start-up in Philadelphia coincided with President George W. Bush’s stared policy goal of stimulating faith-based initiatives as a means of addressing many social ills, drawing on the unique blend of traditional community presence and compassion found in congregations across the United States.  In his 2003 State of the Union Address, the President specifically proposed a $150 million initiative that would bring mentors to 100,000 children of prisoners.  This led the federal Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) to create a Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCP) program, which supported some 220 such efforts nationally.

Such large-scale public policy efforts provide resources – and thus the impetus for local programs to meet some of those needs swiftly.  And there is hope that they may stimulate more sustained programmatic attention and support for these children.  Yet the risk is that local organizations, unaware of the many challenges and intricacies of programs like Amachi, may look to start new programs without the necessary tools and knowledge to make these programs effective.  The rush to implement, spurred by the national visibility and the availability of federal funding, may prove wasteful, unhelpful, and even discouraging to the children it seeks to assist unless it is tempered by sound planning and attention to program design and operation.  Between 2003 and 2010 FYSB awarded $129.5 million in MCP funding to more than 220 grantees nationwide.

And that is the challenge to sustain the visibility and momentum of such initiatives while also ensuring that new programs everywhere benefit from the lessons learned and best practices already achieved – meaning they have clear goals, are solidly planned and implemented, and have adequate resources and effective staff and management.  The Amachi experience proves that, while the basic concept is straightforward, implementation is not. There needs to be a careful sequence of recruiting the collaborative partners essential to the program’s success; reaching out effectively to faith leaders and congregations; creating relationships with prisons and prisoners; and establishing a balance between the natural compassion to be found in faith congregations and the professional practices, standards, and management that effective programs require.

It was for that reason that the Amachi Training Institute was established to build the capacity of mentoring organizations on a broad scale.  Each Amachi program begins with a day and a half of training, followed by technical assistance to help programs recruit volunteers and identify children via their parents in local prisons.  This hands-on partnership puts the training into action.  All programs also receive training on the appropriate use of government funds.

Amachi has conducted 141 Amachi training courses for 3,536 people from 1,026 organizations in 559 cities in forty-seven states, as well as Canada, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.  In addition, Amachi conducted 268 site visits, providing technical assistance to 226 agencies in 116 cities in forty-two states and the District of Columbia, resulting in rapid program replication and growth.  Since 2001 more than 250,000 children have been served by the 359 agencies in this program.

Recent and ongoing studies of the Amachi model in the state of Texas report that 97.6 percent of children participating in Amachi programs are promoted to the next grade level, 78.7 percent of adults report an improvement in child self-confidence, 52 percent of children are less likely to skip school, and 47.7 percent of children report better academic performance.  Through the second year of this three-year longitudinal study, not one of the Amachi youth had been referred to the juvenile justice system.

In the fall of 2009, Amachi received a three-year $17 million grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to operate the Amachi Mentoring Coalition Project designed to provide financial resources, training, and technical assistance to mentoring organization nationwide that serve children impacted by incarceration.  By September 2012, through this program 18,287 children were matched with a mentor, 259.7 jobs were created, 1,107 partnerships were formed, and 38 statewide coalitions were created.

Programs like Amachi that aim to assist young people through mentoring have clearly proven to be effective.  Stable mentoring relationships have been shown to reduce risky behavior and promote achievement among disadvantaged youth, and there is hope that such efforts will reduce the number of children who follow their parents to jail.  While we must surely work to improve the effectiveness of reentry programs for those rejoining our communities after being released from our prisons and jails, it is clear that “no entry” programs are far more effective.  Mentoring programs like Amachi aim to slowly dismantle the prison-industrial complex by helping children of the incarcerated avoid repeating the mistakes that led their parents to prison, thereby making the growth in prison construction and reentry programs unnecessary.  It will also take legislative and policy changes to rescind laws enacted in the 1990s.  These laws requiring mandatory maximum and minimum sentencing are largely responsible for the dramatic increase in incarceration over the last two decades.  It is my belief that these policies and legislative changes along with mentoring of children could cut the prison population 50 percent by 2020.


Editor’s Note: To learn more Amachi from the children’s pespective, please see this new report from Amachi of Pittsburgh