Policy Corner: The Breaking Chain Model. Ending the cycle of intergenerational incarceration

wilson goode By W. Wilson Goode, Sr.

On June 12, 2013, I was designated one of ten champions of change for our work with mentoring children of the incarcerated.  I sat in the room with eleven other honorees, working in various areas of helping to stabilize children of the incarcerated.  Back in 2000 when the Amachi Program started, these children were invisible and seldom thought about.  But now after thirteen years, the White House had taken notice and saluted.

In a sense what all twelve of these organizations have in common is the goal of ending the cycle of incarceration through best practices.  One of the groups not honored was Breaking the Chain Foundation which seeks to meet the spiritual, emotional, educational and psychological needs of children attacked by the chains of intergenerational incarceration.

This organization is doing important work. Highlighted below is the philosophy behind their program model as well as the design and key elements that have made the program successful.

Criminal behavior among juveniles in the African American community is often linked to the behavior of the generations before them – the criminal activity of their parents, grandparents, and caretakers. Parents are a child’s primary source of learning – so when parents display deviant behaviors, their children are likely to adopt similar kinds of behavior. According to Frederick Elkin, author of The Child and Society: The Process of Socialization, children adopt some behavior patterns that are unique to their particular families and others that are characteristic of the larger culture. Despite the fact that many children never intend to choose a life of crime, they are often drawn into such a life as a result of negative family influences, behaviors, and lifestyles.

Futhermore, the criminal activity of each succeeding generation tends to be more violent.  Our youth are contending with hard-core problems and facing critical behavioral decisions at an age when they are terribly vulnerable to outside pressures. Most young adolescents seem to be lacking a clear sense of themselves and end up searching for identity via trial and error: A. Comer and J. Poissant have written: “We have seen failure, criminal behavior, extreme militant behavior, depression, and even outright mental breakdown result from such identity confusion….African American adolescents in particular may succumb to despair, and many give up.”

Traditionally, the style of child rearing in the African American tradition emphasizes religious beliefs, strict discipline, respect for parental authority, and reliance on experience as the teacher. This approach has been handed down through the generations – from grandparent to parent to child. Strength, perseverance, hope, and faith are among the most important values elders have sought to pass on through the generations. Over the years the passing down of these values and cultural expectations has been sustained by the proximity of young to the old.

More recently, however, socioeconomic and political stressors of society have complicated the ability of the extended units to remain in intimate contact. As a consequence, the character development of younger generations has been severely impaired, particularly around values pertaining to religion, discipline, education, work, sex, marriage, mutual aid, race identity, and death.  The incarceration of one or more parents only increases the severity of this breakdown for many youth.

The Breaking the Chain model is rooted in the belief that children and youth who are exposed to powerful positive influences early in life and taught empowering tools will be able to break the cycle of intergenerational deviant behaviors that too often leads to incarceration.

The approach is designed to intervene in the cycle of criminal behavior and intergenerational incarceration by addressing the causes of such behavior, while also providing services to children and families at risk and affected by incarceration.

These are the key elements of the Breaking the Chain model:

–          Identify churches with active and vibrant prison ministry programs for youth, adults, and families.

–          Develop partnerships with juvenile homes, detention centers, and other agencies that will assist in the development of children and youth impacted by incarceration.

–          Build relationships with community organizations that can help identify families with a history of incarceration so the families can be linked to faith-based organizations.

–          Offer a comprehensive prevention and intervention program for youth that is designed to reduce crime by addressing its root causes.

–          Establish and implement a case management tool that is tailored to meet the specific needs of children.

Specifically, the Breaking the Chain model seeks to serve youth through four key programs:

  1. Mentoring Program: Link youth between the ages of ten and seventeen with caring adult mentors for the purpose of gaining necessary support to navigate through difficult circumstances. Adults assist youth in a variety of ways, helping them make positive life choices, enhancing their commitment to academic success, and building ambition toward achieving their personal goals.
  2. Sponsoring Program: Connect youth between the ages of six and seventeen with caring adult sponsors who can offer economic support to assist monetarily these children through difficult circumstances.
  3. Tutoring Program: Provide volunteer tutors or homework centers in area churches to help build reading and math skills.
  4. Referral Program: After administering a baseline assessment of each individual youth and his or her needs, make referrals to specialized providers who can render professional services to youth who may need psychological counseling, academic support, nutritional services, pastoral care and counseling, and recreational programs.

In the coming months this posting will highlight other evidence based models.