My turn: Mentoring children of prisoners

Posted: Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Upholding the rights of crime victims is one of the most important tasks undertaken by the Alaska Department of Corrections. Sadly, counted among these victims are inmates' children. One estimate shows that at any given time as many as 6,000 youngsters have a parent who is a prison inmate.

Recognizing this, the department has developed a strong working relationship with a Catholic Community Services program to aid children of incarcerated parents. CCS provides a specialized mentoring program that follows an exceptional model developed by the National Resource Center for Children of Prisoners, through the Child Welfare League of America.

Recently, Rev. Wilson Goode, former mayor of Philadelphia, visited Alaska in support of the Amachi Program, which, in partnership with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, has also established a program to provide mentors for inmates' children.

The department looks forward to supporting the work of the Amachi Program as well as continuing its partnership with Catholic Community Services.

Rev. Goode is a particularly impressive advocate for mentoring children of inmates. He explained that in the Ibo language of Nigeria, "amachi" means "who knows but what God has brought us through this child." And, while visiting Alaska, he said he learned that "amachi" in Yupik means "carrying more than two children on your back."

Rev. Goode said that without intervention 70 percent of the children of inmates eventually follow one or both their parents to prison. When his own father was sent to prison, he explained, a pastor became his mentor and eventually guided him to attend college despite his first thoughts that such a goal was impossible.

Children of incarcerated parents benefit from mentoring in many ways. Mainly, the benefits are revealed in added self-confidence, and improved school performance, attendance and classroom behavior.

That Goode became mayor of the fourth-largest city in the United States is wonderful testimony to the benefit of mentoring children of inmates.

The department's ties with Catholic Community Services are long standing. Along with mentoring, CCS provides direct services to children and their guardians while a parent or parents are incarcerated, and to support parents when they move back to life at home. In addition, CCS staff work directly with parents in prison. Today this program is active in Juneau, Anchorage and Eagle River.

Rev. Goode is correct when he said the success of mentoring programs depends on having access to correctional institutions and the support and cooperation of staff. There's some misunderstanding on the part of inmates to overcome. For example, incarcerated parents may mistrust "the system" or fear losing their child's loyalty or attention to someone they don't know.

The department continues to work with Catholic Community Services, and looks forward to working with Alaska's Amachi Program as well. Both have a similar mission with somewhat different approaches.

Mentors for children of incarcerated parents are needed, and I strongly encourage Alaskans to consider undertaking this valuable community service.

Contacting Catholic Community Services or Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Alaska doesn't equal a commitment. But the dedicated volunteers and professionals at these organizations will be glad to take the time to explain what's needed and provide details of the training process.

To take this first step, contact the Amachi Program or Catholic Community Services.

• Marc Antrim is the commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

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