When a mother is arrested, taken from her home in handcuffs, what happens to the children left behind? If the father is absent, who will ensure that the children are safe and provided for? Who can answer their questions about where their mother has been taken and when she will come home again? Who advocates for the children’s right to visit their mother, to know why she has been imprisoned, and when she will be released?
“When a mother is arrested today there is nothing in place to address the needs of her children,” says EDC’s Ann Schlesinger. “Incarcerated women often have lives that include children, but the agencies charged with handling prisoners—police, courts, prisons—are not required to consider these children or their needs. There are no standards or regulations governing their treatment or placement. In most cases, the mother is the primary caregiver, and fathers are absent.” As a result, little is known about what happens to the children of incarcerated mothers. “Most wind up living with grandparents or other family members, while others go into foster care,” says Schlesinger.
The impact of incarceration on children is multifaceted, according to Schlesinger. Beyond their material needs for a place to live, food, medical care, a school to attend, they also have serious social and emotional needs. Young people who have had parents in prison report that they want to be told the truth about their parents’ incarceration. They want someone to listen to them without judgment. They long to see their parents and have their family relationships recognized and valued.
“Research shows that children are resilient,” says Schlesinger. “They can come back from trauma, particularly if they have a strong and supportive adult in their lives.”
To support children as they live through the trauma of a parent’s imprisonment, EDC is working with Aid to Incarcerated Mothers (AIM), to provide children of imprisoned mothers with an adult mentor. With training from EDC and AIM staff, the mentors help children, ages 4-14, build their sense of self-confidence and stability, strengthen their academic skills, and hold on to their relationship with their mother. “AIM brings the knowledge and trust of the women in prison,” says Schlesinger. “We bring the mentoring expertise and the expertise with children.”
The program, known as Children and Mentors Partnership (CAMP), hopes to recruit and train more than one hundred mentors through the program. The project is part of a larger national initiative funded by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. It includes approximately 50 similar programs across the country. While the program currently serves children with mothers in prison, staff hope to expand it to include children with incarcerated fathers as well.
AIM staff lay the foundation for the project by recruiting the mothers in prison and the volunteer mentors to participate in the program. “AIM is a community-based organization that has been supporting incarcerated mothers and their families in the Boston area for 25 years,” says Schlesinger. “It has the deep trust and respect of the prison community.” A critical step in the process is getting the mothers’ approval and support for the mentor before involving the children. “This way the children know that their mother supports their relationship with the mentor,” explains Schlesinger. AIM staff then brings the mentor into the prison to meet the mother before meeting the child. “The mother gets an opportunity to talk about their children and express their hopes for them,” says Schlesinger. Finally the mentors meet the caregivers and the children.
To help the volunteers build a meaningful relationship with these vulnerable children, EDC designed and delivers a training program for new mentors. Over the course of seven sessions, EDC staff provide information about the unique issues children of incarcerated parents face and offer strategies for bonding with children, connecting with families, supporting children in school, and strengthening family ties. “We also provide the mentors opportunities for emotional support from us and from each other,” says Schlesinger. “When the mentors come back from meeting the mothers in prison they are eager to share their experiences.”
“It is exciting to see how this project really helps break down stereotypes about women in prison,” says EDC’s Janet Price. “Most of us don’t know very much about prison beyond what we see on TV or read in the newspapers. But the mentors get to learn who these women really are. They may have broken the law, but they are also women who love their children. The mentors get to see them taking advantage of prison rehabilitation programs, trying to better themselves, trying to help their children.”
There are currently about 20 mentors involved in the EDC trainings, but the number is growing with each session. The mentors are a diverse group, ranging from college undergraduates to middle aged professionals. They include an architect, a social worker, and an after-school teacher. They are men and women, white and African-American. All of them are volunteers who commit to meet with a child for a minimum of one hour a week over the course of twelve months.
“It is a special experience to be working with volunteers,” says Price. “They touch my heart with their commitment and care. All of them are excited and very nervous. They worry about whether the families will welcome them and whether the children will like them. They ask questions like, ‘What if the child doesn’t want to talk to me? What if I can’t think of anything to do with the child? What if the child tells me disturbing things?’”
To address these concerns, the trainings involve role play so the mentors can try out different responses to these potentially difficult scenarios. The trainings also recommend books to read and activities to do with children, ways to respect cultural and family differences, strategies for listening and building trust.
“We explain to the mentors that they need to be nonjudgmental. They are a support to the child, not a social worker or a savior,” says Price. “Mentoring is a reciprocal relationship with the benefits going both ways. For all that a mentor offers a child, the relationship with a child will enrich the mentor in ways they can’t even imagine.”
Originally published on April 30, 2005