"Mentoring is a tremendously beneficial thing ... but only when done right," Ms. Rhodes says. Done right, in her view, includes proper screening of volunteers, careful training, and "making sure [matches] don't terminate prematurely, because that actually does more harm than good."
Achieving longevity is challenging, in part because children of prisoners tend to move around a lot – to stay with grandparents or other relatives, or at foster homes. A recent MCP evaluation done for the US Department of Health and Human Services found extreme poverty was one of the most common risk factors for kids in the program, and 39 percent had moved within the preceding six months. Only 46 percent of mentor matches lasted more than a year.
Seeing need for improvement, the administration requested funding at a lower level while the kinks got worked out. Instead, Congress cut the funding altogether. But it hasn't killed the mission.
It was the faith-based community in Philadelphia that first took on mentoring children with parents behind bars.
As recently as the mid-1990s, these kids weren't singled out as candidates for mentoring. But with a boom in incarceration rates, Philadelphia's former mayor, Wilson Goode, an ordained minister whose own father had been incarcerated, pioneered a partnership that soon drew national attention – and established children of prisoners as a group worthy of attention.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania had mentoring expertise, but not enough volunteers. African-American churches had community contacts and volunteers, but lacked specialized mentoring know-how. Mr. Goode brought them together. The resulting program was called Amachi, based on a Nigerian Ibo word that means "who knows but what God has brought us through this child."