With 2.3 million inmates behind bars in the US, the goal of volunteers in mentor programs for the 2.7 million children of prisoners is: No child left alone. Despite government cuts in funding, the programs continue.
Kayla Booze was a happy 9-year-old who loved art projects and was an A-student in elementary school – before the police came for her father.
Kayla's childhood sunshine was eclipsed when her dad was convicted in 2005 of murder for shooting a man in a barbershop fight and sentenced to life in a Mississippi federal prison. Kayla grew guarded and angry, says Brandy Booze, Kayla's mother, who was left to raise three daughters on her own as a part-time retail saleswoman. Faltering grades and disinterest put the child at risk of dropping out of New Orleans schools.
It was a familiar spiral for kids like Kayla and her two younger sisters, who belong to a little-known American population that is highly vulnerable and mostly invisible: the children left behind by the US inmate population of 2.3 million. There are an estimated 2.7 million children with a parent behind bars, according to a Pew Center on the States report. And that's up from 950,000 in 1987 when 1 out of every 125 kids had a parent in jail or prison; today it's 1 in 28. Among African-American children, it's 1 in 9.
The strains and shame of parental incarceration compound other childhood challenges, from poverty to an unstable home life. So these children are more at risk than others of ending up in prison themselves.
But Kayla, now 17, was detoured from that route and is making decent grades in high school. She's teaching herself piano and preparing for college and a career in fashion design.
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