When Dad Is in Prison
When Dad Is in Prison
With seven children at home and a husband in jail, Tameyka Powell admits she needs help keeping her kids on track. Two years ago, her young son Kendall Jackson behaved so poorly in his New Orleans school that he was suspended several times a month.
Now Kendall, 7, is doing much better. He's on the honor roll and winning praise for following directions. Powell credits the mentoring her son receives through New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, where she says men teach boys right from wrong.
"He wants to please God," says Powell, chatting in a pew at New Hope after a worship service. "Even when I'm watching TV, [Kendall] says, 'Oh Mama, God's not pleased with that.' This church has been a very good foundation for him."
For years, federally supported mentoring for America's 2 million children who have a parent in prison has banned mentors from initiating talk about God due to guidelines enforcing church-state separation. Between 2003 and September 2011, Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCP), a $49 million federal program, matched more than 100,000 children with adults. Mentors could discuss matters of faith only if and when mentees raised the subject.
MCP funding ended last September. Yet rather than wither without federal dollars, the movement to mentor children of the incarcerated shows new signs of vitality and religiosity. Churches such as New Hope, which joined the movement without seeking federal funds, are growing robustly religious mentoring programs. Mentors trained under MCP are embracing new freedom to talk about their Christian faith with their mentees.
"There's an extra level of excitement for a mentor when the door is opened to faith conversations" with a mentee, says Jeff Dorn, former director of the Assemblies of God's MCP-funded program in Springfield, Missouri. "Having mentors know up front that [sharing faith] can be part of the program adds incentive for them to volunteer and assists with longevity."
MCP was a Bush administration faith-based initiative that paid to recruit and train volunteer mentors, who typically came from churches. Many felt inspired to work with kids living in chronic poverty with little stable adult influence in their lives.
At Big Brothers, Big Sisters of the Triangle in Raleigh, North Carolina, some 90 percent of MCP-supported mentors are Christians who see mentoring as mission. Chief executive Kim Breeden said many mentors continue despite the funding cut. "We have children who go to church and to Bible study with their [mentors]," Breeden says. "The parents are very supportive of that."
However, not everyone is cheering a surge of faith in mentoring. While religion can be a "shared interest" that facilitates bonding, it can also introduce harmful dynamics if not managed carefully, says Jean Rhodes, director of the Center for Evidence-based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
"There's the possibility of proselytizing and crossing ethical boundaries," says Rhodes, who helped launch MCP. "Let's say you're getting into [mentoring] because you're religious. Then you find out the kid isn't, so you try to convert him. We don't want that.
"The best mentors aren't overly didactic or overly proselytizing. So the mentors who take a faith perspective can't be too heavy-handed about it."
But others insist that exposure to religious faith benefits children. Some programs formerly supported by MCP now prefer mentors with faith convictions. Cornerstone Children in Marrero, Louisiana, offers mentoring for children who ride Catholic Charities buses to visit their parents at Angola and other state prisons.