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No child left alone: Volunteers mentor children of inmates

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Giving them room to form a habit of thinking calmly can help them avoid overreacting by, say, punching an authority figure or reaching for a weapon to settle a dispute.

Though the impact of mentoring has often been exaggerated, it gets results under certain conditions, says Jean Rhodes, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts Boston. When a child's greatest challenges are environmental, such as an unsettled home life, mentoring seems to help kids with incarcerated parents do better in school. When matches last a year or more, kids experience more academic success than in shorter matches.

"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.

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