According to The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, an estimated 2 million children in America have at least one incarcerated parent on any given day. The emotional impact that this can have on children is astounding, resulting in depression, shame, guilt, anger, and as mentioned by Carol Forsloth in “Children of Convicts Often End Up in Prison Themselves Without Assistance,” approximately 70 percent of these children end up in jail like their parents. However, it doesn’t have to be this way, mentors can offer children of incarcerated parents support and guidance during this emotionally trying experience and inspire them make better choices for themselves.
In a social situation that involves children with an incarcerated parent, circumstances may arise requiring them to explain to friends why one of their parents is never at home, which will result in embarrassment and lead to ridicule; or they could cover it up with a falsehood that they will have to keep straight, creating a since of guilt for having to hide family circumstances and risk being discovered and labeled a liar. Either way they will have to live with an emotional burden that will not go away anytime soon, and the child will more than likely become accustomed to the situation before getting over it, which can eventually cause hardened feelings toward the incarcerated parent and difficulty getting reacquainted should the time come.
Also, families rarely discuss the incarcerated parent openly out of shame and guilt. Children involved tend to grow distant from the incarcerated parent because they are rarely spoken of, and then begin to disassociate their present caregiver from the spousal relationship. Eventually this may lead children into depression, cause them to suffer a low self-esteem, generate a sense of hopelessness, and lead children to believe that their own destiny will be much the same as their parent. Left to their own devices children in this situation will engage in harmful relationships with others, causing yet more emotional anguish and the strong possibility of drug abuse.
An honest, reliable, and trustworthy mentor can be a child’s only salvation. Because preferably they are a third party and detached from the initial situation, they are able to approach things with a clear mind unclouded by the emotional distress accompanying the nature of the separation. Mentors can have frequent contact with the child, hopefully filling the void left by the incarcerated parent. They can establish rapport by opening up and giving the troubled child an avenue to release the negative energies garnered since the separation. And once the rapport is establish and a sense of trust built, the mentor can begin modeling a better way of life for the child, and teaching him good moral values in the absence of the parent.
So to answer the question “Are children of prisoners less likely to commit crimes if helped by mentors?” Yes, which is why in 2003 President Bush reached out and asked Americans to join in an effort to help children of prisoners by authorizing Congress to establish the Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program (MCPP) under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Data related to MCPPs effectiveness is unavailable at this time, but no one can deny that mentors impact on children in any disrupted family situation will have nothing other than a positive effect on their lives. The need for mentors for children of incarcerated parents is so great that in 2007 MCPP issued grants to 52 organizations for the purpose of helping children of incarcerated parents, and also matched their 100,000th child with a mentor. Today there are over 200 such organizations and four times as many children being matched with mentors.