Mentors – Yes

The “American Dream” is powerful enough to overcome the high risk for academic and behavioral problems in the lives of children of incarcerated parents. That is why we need mentors who can interact with these children and help them touch, feel, and hear the Dream.

As a legal aid lawyer serving poor communities in Chester and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it was always clear to me that these families, heavily impacted by incarceration, had the same dreams for their children as my two-parent friends living on the Main Line and in Center City: health and happiness; a good high quality education; love and laughter; a productive, meaningful life.

How can you, the one parent left behind, the grandparent making her best effort, the guardian or foster parent designated by the state, start to make the “American Dream” a reality for these children. First, do everything possible to help your child have a positive sense of self. Next, help your child build a strong character. Finally, partner with a good Mentoring Program in your community.

A strong positive sense of self will help your child understand that prison is an industry and not an inevitable destination for him. The nature of crime as an industry was made crystal clear in Pennsylvania earlier this year. You may have read that two former Luzerne County Pennsylvania judges have plead guilty to taking $2.6 million in secret payments from the former owner of two juvenile detention centers.

For the record, for every two judges like these, there are two hundred outstanding jurists in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These include, but are certainly not limited to, the new head of a newly installed Mental Health Court located in the Criminal Division of the Philadelphia County Courts, a Supreme Court Justice whose family came to this country to avoid further religious persecution, an outstanding state appellate court judge who recently closed a chapter on a forty-year old desegregation case, an exceptional member of the Third Circuit who happens to be the spouse of our Governor, and a panel of the most brilliant United States Bankruptcy Judges in the country.

Of course, life requires some basic necessities: food, shelter, and medical care. A mentor cannot generally provide your family with any of the basic necessities of life. Your family will need to look to your faith community, your extended family and friends, to available private and government assistance programs, and most significantly, to your own inner resolve and fortitude.

The Honorable W. Wilson Goode, the former two term mayor of the City of Philadelphia, was the son of an incarcerated father. Recognizing the value of his mentor relationship with a beloved pastor, Reverend Goode, who is also a minister, helped to found, along with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pennsylvania, AMACHI, a mentoring partnership for children of incarcerated parents. The Greater Exodus Baptist Church of Philadelphia, led by Pastor Herb Lusk II, has an exemplary program which also helps prisoners when they return to their families.

The children of prisoners are less likely to commit crimes if helped by mentors. The reasons these children are at higher risk to commit crimes is because they are more likely to experience academic failures, behavioral problems, and mental health issues. The reasons for these problems range from the ostracism by peers when they learn of the incarcerated parent, prejudgment of their abilities, expectations, and inclinations by the adults in their lives, and the resulting anger and frustration caused by low self-esteem.

Mentors can help these children address these problems in meaningful ways. Mentors can encourage dialogue about current events such as the recent election of President Obama and the nomination of Judge Sotomayor. Mentors can share their stories of accomplishment and disappointment. Mentors can help children of prisoners understand that parents are responsible for their children, not the other way around. But, even in the face of a parent’s failure or mistake, a child still has his own inner strength sufficient to overcome obstacles and move forward.

In other words, mentors can help these children grab hold of the “American Dream” and help them to hold tight until they start to see their own accomplishments.

Sources: The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News