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Mentoring Children of the Incarcerated

Applying the mission of the NRCCFI and FCN, this Mentoring Page will:

  • provide current and relevant information on mentoring children with incarcerated parents
  • focus on family strengthening policies for mentoring programs
  • offer ideas for training, inspiring and connecting those working in mentoring programs serving the children and families impacted by incarceration
  • suggest ways to include the families in defining the problems and designing solutions.

Key Skills for Mentoring Programs Serving Children and Families of the Incarcerated

The following is the list of 12 key skills that mentoring programs, caregivers, adult children of the incarcerated and trainers of program staff have identified as critical to success with children dealing with the incarceration of a parent.

  1. Providing a base of knowledge and awareness specifically about children and families of incarcerated parents (August 2009 “Featured Mentoring Skill” – Read More …)
  2. Choosing and training staff well (Current “Featured Mentoring Skill” – Read More)
  3. Recruiting and screening appropriate  volunteers, mentors
  4. Matching effectively to insure longevity of the match
  5. Building relationships with caregivers of children of incarcerated parents
  6. Nurturing the relationships between mentors and children
  7. Including the incarcerated parent in the program
  8. Creating an atmosphere of safety and trust related to issues of race, class and faith/religion
  9. Creating an infrastructure for effective supervision of mentors and of staff
  10. Assessing risks and protections for children of incarcerated parents and their families
  11. Coping with extreme situations, unexpected emergencies .and child or parent crises
  12. Providing information and knowledge about incarcerated parents and the system of corrections.

Adapted from Key Skills for Working with Children and Families of the Incarcerated

By Ann Adalist-Estrin

Copyright 2000 Family and Corrections Network

Use only with permission, Contact

Featured Mentoring Skill

Bimonthly, we will focus on a different skill from this list and provide a variety of ideas, raise issues and promote strategies to help those in the field of mentoring children with incarcerated parents.


November 2009:

Choosing and training staff well

“Professionals who serve children of prisoners must be willing to go the extra mile.  They must care enough about the children that they prepare their mentors thoroughly, supervise them with care and expertise, communicate with them regularly, and act as a bridge between the mentors’ lives and those of the children.  Organizations that hire such staff must similarly care enough about children to invest in the best training available to prepare them for their important work.” ~ Sari Waxler, Executive Director – Seedlings Foundation- Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program, Austin Texas

Staffing for Mentoring Children of Prisoners Programs
By Cynthia L. Graham
Project Director
New York’s Children of Promise
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ulster County

Critical to the development of an effective and high-quality Mentoring Children of Prisoners program, is securing the right individuals to provide services.  Standard professionalism and formal education maintain esteem; but only when properly balanced with cultural competence and sensitivity.  Staff must understand both the commonalities and distinctions between children of the incarcerated and their counterparts.  Competence in this area will allow for efforts that are targeted yet unbiased.  While children and families of prisoners continue to bear the label of being a vulnerable and at risk population, my years of serving as an administrator of a multi-county mentoring children of prisoners program, has taught me that the only common factor that is assured is the criteria for program eligibility.   Families handle incarceration in a variety of ways; and many express phenomenal strength and resilience while coping with grievous circumstances. Staff should receive initial training that fosters self exploration of potential assumptions, opinions, and biases toward children and families of prisoners.  Such training can serve as screening, development, and a means of identifying areas of progress, and those needing improvement.

While we acknowledge that families are impacted by incarceration in a range of ways; there are studies that have compiled information about common coping styles. Staff should be educated with as much data as possible to enhance preparedness to respond appropriately, supportively, and confidently to relevant matters.  Due to the limitless ways in which a family can be impacted by incarceration, staff should know upfront that their services will entail a great deal of flexibility, in order to overcome a variety of potential challenges.   Training that is specific to the needs and concerns of the targeted population should be an on-going component of staff development.

Because it is highly unlikely that a family or community faces the effects of incarceration as a stand-alone issue, direct service staff of a mentoring children of prisoners program are also subjected to attempting to work through compiled issues that have often lead to or are commonly associated with incarceration.  Such issues include but are not limited to poverty, racism, and substandard education, housing, and income.  Staff can become emotionally, mentally, and physically burned out, without proper guidance, support, and monitoring of caseloads.  In order to assure quality services to families, staff , and not just mentors must receive the highest quality training and support.

Cynthia Graham is Project Director of New York’s Children of Promise at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ulster County.

Consider This: Tips for Staff Development

  • Formerly incarcerated parents, caregivers and adult children of the incarcerated are great trainers for staff.
  • Use role plays or what would you do activities to assess the assumptions and attitudes that prospective and current staff have about incarcerated parents.
  • Try a staff book club –see book list side bar- once or twice a year and use staff meetings to discuss the relevance of the book to your staff.
  • Combat compassion fatigue with: Early dismissals such as 2 o’clock summer Fridays ; free neck and shoulder massages- check with massage training programs for students that need practice hours; staff appreciation events; “affirmations” on bulletin boards and  e-mails.
  • Careful caseloads help minimize burnout: don’t give all the most difficult families to the same staff member because they are so good with at risk youth!
  • Be sure that policy and procedures manuals give staff clear guidelines that help in decision making.

Training Resources

On this web site

Much of the material included on this site can be use or adapted for training mentors. Of particular relevance:

Training Opportunities

Web sites


A Sentence of Their Own. Film chronicles one family’s annual pilgrimage to a New Hampshire State Prison and reveals the damaging impact incarceration has on families.

Champagne and the Talking Eggs, Michael Sporn, Director, VHS, 1997. Cartoon format appropriate for children and adults.

A Hard Straight-, Goro Toshima, 2004,  Award winning documentary film tells the story of what it’s really like for a person to make the radical transition from prison life to society.

Shadows, Rachel Libert, 2008, Film explores the impact that violence and the incarceration of large numbers of fathers, brothers, husbands and sons has on families in the city of Philadelphia. (Keita -link to Publications and Products page please)

Troop 1500, Ellen Spiro, 2006, Their mothers have been convicted of various crimes, but the Girl Scouts of Troop 1500 want to be doctors, social workers and marine biologists. Troop 1500 is their story-and that of their mothers-trying to hold together their families from behind the walls.

Family Ties, Peter Argentine,_A candid conversation with fathers in jail and after release. The film presents the importance of family and the pain of separation.
Prison Lullabies, Odile Isralson and Lina Matta, 2003  Film about women who gave birth in prison.

When the Bough Breaks, Jill Evans-Petzall, a documentary about three Missouri families whose children are bounced between social workers, foster parents, grandparents and visits with their moms in prison.


Bernstein, N. (2005). All alone in the world: Children of the incarcerated. NY: The New Press. ISBN 1-56584-952-3

Braman, Donald, Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America, U. of Michigan 2004

Looking Ahead

The February 2009 Featured Mentoring Skill will be:  Recruiting and Screening Appropriate Volunteers and Mentors.  This will include a focus on recruiting mentors of color.

  • Would you like to contribute ideas for how your program recruits screens and trains mentors?  Let us know!

Caregiver’s Choice

NRCCFI at FCN is also involved in a number of projects focusing on mentoring children of the incarcerated.  One such program is Caregiver’s Choice.

Caregiver’s Choice is a partnership project between NRCCFI and MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership.  Caregiver’s Choice is an exciting new program of the Federal Mentoring Children of Prisoner’s Initiative.

What is Caregiver’s Choice?

Caregiver’s Choice provides the caregivers of children with incarcerated parents with unique access to mentoring services.  Caregivers receive a voucher for 1 year of free mentoring services for their child(ren) with an incarcerated parent from an approved agency. Finally, Caregivers can rest assured that all approved programs meet standards for safety and quality.

Who can participate?

Any caregiver of children with an incarcerated parent can participate in the program. To sign up, call 1-877-333-CHOICE (877-333-2764), or visit Caregiver’s Choice or email

Why is this program different?

All the mentoring agencies must be approved and recieve specialized training to understand the needs of children and families of the incarcerated and demonstrate the capacity and commitment to provide mentors in a reasonable time frame.

How do I get more information?

For more information or to obtain a voucher, Caregiver’s can call 1-877-333-CHOICE (877-333-2764), or visit Caregiver’s Choice or email

To become an approved agency, organizations must apply, be screened and then receive training for delivering mentoring services.  For more information about the program please call 1-877-333-CHOICE (877-333-2764), visit Caregiver’s Choice or email