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More mentoring programs across the country now include components that help children relate to their incarcerated parents, says Ann Adalist-Estrin, who directs the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at the Family and Corrections Network. Mentors may help children write letters, or even take them on visits.

This new emphasis reflects the reality of many children’s lives, Adalist-Estrin says. It is a marked advance from earlier years, when many such programs assumed these children were essentially parentless.

“Almost all children of the incarcerated are trying to make, mend, or maintain their relationship with their parent in some way,” she says.

A new federally funded mentoring program also debuted in the fall of 2007: Caregiver’s Choice, which allows adults to choose from a list of local mentoring options. The three-year, $33 million initiative is on track to reach about 11,000 children by the end of its second year.

State legislators and officials are also paying more attention to the issue:

  • More agencies around the country are teaching health, education and welfare workers about children of the incarcerated, Adalist-Estrin says. In addition to Chicago, she has trained school district staff in Austin, Tex. and Harrisburg, Pa.
  • At the end of August, the California State Legislature passed a resolution to recognize the Bill of Rights for Children of the Incarcerated, which includes rights such as “I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent’s arrest,” “I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent,” and “I have the right to speak with, see, and touch my parent.” Tennessee passed a similar resolution in May 2007.
  • Several other states have held legislative hearings, including Arizona, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont.
  • Prompted by advocates and legislators, the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board issued guidelines for local jurisdictions to use in creating parental arrest protocols. The board also created a 90-minute officer training video, says Claire Scheuren, deputy director of the Pima Prevention Partnership. This summer, about 900 copies went to law enforcement agencies around the state of Arizona.
  • The Montana Alliance of Families Touched by Incarceration created a handbook, “Family Members Behind Bars,” to help caregivers support children. The 52-page booklet guides families through each stage of a parent’s involvement in the criminal justice system.

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