Mentoring Children of Incarcerated Parents: State of the Research

Written by Matthew Hagler

Since 1970, the incarceration rate in the U.S. has quadrupled, resulting in more than 1 in every 100 U.S. adults being in jail or prison, the highest per capita rate in the world. Strikingly, the majority of adult prisoners are parents of minors, and these children are said to the be “unseen victims” of an overly punitive judicial system. Parental incarceration may cause or exacerbate significant stressors for children, including poverty, family instability, disrupted attachment, changes in residence, as well as feelings of abandonment, shame, and stigmatization. Compared to youth without an incarcerated parent, children of prisoners are at higher risk of developing a range of psychological and behavioral difficulties, including posttraumatic stress symptoms, emotional dysregulation, and disrupted familial and peer relationships. Most concerningly, parental incarceration drastically increases the likelihood that young people will engage in antisocial behavior, including physical aggression, theft, and other forms of delinquency. This pattern of behavior during childhood and adolescence often leads to more serious offending and subsequent criminal justice involvement during adulthood. Thus, it appears that criminal involvement is highly intergenerational, making researchers, policy makers, and practitioners eager to develop interventions to break this cycle and promote positive development among children of incarcerated parents.

Mentoring is the most widely implemented intervention for children of incarcerated parents. Over the past two decades, in particular, mentoring programs for children of incarcerated parents has dramatically expanded, in part due to significant support from the federal government. In 2004, President George W. Bush established the Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCP) Program, which received $50 million annually until 2010. Although this specific program has ended, federal spending on mentoring has ranged from $78 million to $90 million in recent years. Most of these funds are distributed by the Department of Justice, which continues to prioritize mentoring for children of incarcerated parents, among other prevention initiatives.

The rationale for the widespread implementation of mentoring programs for children of prisoners mostly comes from research on more general youth populations, which suggests that relationships with caring, nonparent adults can promote positive behavioral, psychosocial, and academic functioning by influencing youth’s socioemotional, cognitive, and identity development. The assumption has been that the same mentoring effects and mechanisms found in more general populations would extend to children of incarcerated parents. However, the expansion of mentoring programs for these vulnerable youth vastly outpaced research, and this assumption went completely untested for almost a decade, after hundreds of millions of dollars in federal spending.

Before examining these specific program evaluations, it is useful to take stock of what is known about the impact of mentoring for high-risk youth. Meta-analyses have found that youth with elevated levels of both individual risk (e.g., behavioral problems, mental health difficulties) and environmental risk (e.g., poverty, familial instability), on average, experience only small benefits from mentoring interventions. In part, these small effects can be attributed to relationships lacking in emotional closeness that end prematurely. Indeed, qualitative research has found that mentors can feel overwhelmed by their inability to meet the needs of high-risk youth, resulting in burnout and early termination. Concerningly, abrupt, premature termination of mentoring relationships can actually be harmful for young people, particularly those who may already struggle to trust adults in their lives, which is true of many children of prisoners.

Thus, the stakes are high for mentoring programs for children of incarcerated parents, and it is vital that these programs be rigorously evaluated and improved. The few existing program evaluations have produced some positive results, suggesting that program participation tends to lead to better psychological well-being, including enhanced self-esteem, optimism, and happiness, with some studies demonstrating that these effects persist beyond the length of the match. Some evaluations have found that program participation reduces rates of delinquency, although these reductions appear to be temporary and do not persist beyond the length of the match. Qualitatively, youth and families tend to report high levels of satisfaction with mentoring relationships and say they find them helpful. As a whole, these studies are cause for cautious optimism, but they have a number of methodological limitations, including small samples, reliance on subjective reports of outcomes, and, in some cases, a lack of comparison group.

Clearly, there is a need for much more research on the efficacy of mentoring programs in general and the ways to enhance the strength and durability of their effects. To date, researchers have advocated for programs to adhere to mentoring best practices, while also considering unique concerns and characteristics of children of incarcerated parents. Recently, an archival study of a large Big Brothers Big Sisters dataset found that the most effective mentoring programs for children of incarcerated parents are those with goals, funding, and mentoring training specifically designated and tailored to this special population. Overall, a one-size-fit-all mentoring approach is not effective, particularly for highly vulnerable groups. Simply acknowledging these unique considerations appears to boost program effects.

Even as we improve mentoring interventions of children of prisoners, it is critical that we not view mentoring as a panacea for the range of complex issues facing children of incarcerated parents. To be most effective, mentoring programs should be integrated within multimodal interventions that target multiple ecological levels by providing parents and families with educational, employment, and housing support, by addressing neighborhood disorder and violence, and by actively working to end policies that have contributed to the current incarceration crisis. Until Americans address our overly punitive penal system, racist law enforcement and sentencing, and staggering socioeconomic inequality, our most vulnerable children will continue to suffer while their parents are locked away.


Adapted from a forthcoming book chapter in the Handbook on Children of Incarcerated Parents:

Hagler, M., Zwiebach, L., Rhodes, J. E., & Rappaport, C. D. (in press). Mentoring interventions for children of incarcerated parents. In J. M. Eddy & J. Poehlmann-Tynan (eds.), Handbook on Children of Incarcerated Parents, Second Edition. New York, NY: Springer.