A waiting list of 250 children of incarcerated parents in need of mentors will only grow longer unless Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma can overcome the recent loss of a $1.6 million federal grant, organization officials say.

The $40 million U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program was intended to help 40,000 children nationwide, including 900 additional children in Oklahoma. Its funding was eliminated in last summer’s round of budget cuts.

Children of incarcerated parents have an increased likelihood of going to prison, particularly if they are born below the poverty line or reside in households with higher rates of mental health issues, substance abuse and domestic violence, Justin Jones, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said.

“The No. 1 asset to Oklahoma is its people, and the No. 1 future asset is its children,” said Jones, a Big Brothers Big Sisters board member. “If you don’t have an employable work force, jobs won’t stay here … There’s all this connectability.”

Oklahoma has ranked No. 1 in female incarceration for the past 14 of 15 years and usually ranks in the top five for male incarceration. An estimated 27,000 children of incarcerated parents account for 3 percent of Oklahoma’s child population, according to the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.

The waiting list is the longest Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma has seen, said Sharla Owens, the organization’s CEO.

Currently, about 500 children of incarcerated parents have mentors through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma’s Amachi program.

Amachi is designed to break the intergenerational cycle of crime and incarceration by mentoring children of incarcerated parents, according to the organization’s website.

Owens said the Amachi mentoring program focuses on building a trusting relationship between a child of an incarcerated parent and an adult, something the children might not be used to.

“They don’t believe someone is going to stick around in their lives,” Owens said.

The program requires at least a 12-month commitment from the adult mentor and involves regularly updating Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma on the progress of the relationship, she said. It costs about $1,500 per child to recruit the volunteer, run background checks, find the children, train the volunteers and provide monthly administrative support.

The organization will not stop serving children of incarcerated parents. But if the organization doesn’t find replacement funding, the children on the waiting list will stay there, Owens said.

“The children out there are going to find a mentor, good or bad, one way or another,” Owens said. “It’s a matter of whether we get to them first.”

Rep. Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa, said it is a statewide challenge that requires collaboration.

McDaniel was the author of a bill that created the Children of Incarcerated Parents Task Force that is now studying this issue. Members of the task force include Lisa Smith, Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth director; Alice Blue, of the Community Service Council in Tulsa; Judge April Sellers White and other members of the criminal justice, academic, medical and child welfare community.

McDaniel said the task force has seen a disconnect among organizations and churches serving children of incarcerated parents.

“One congregation doesn’t know what the other is doing,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel said she hopes the task force develops a plan for how to better connect groups that serve children.

Research is limited about the effectiveness of programs that serve children of incarcerated parents, said Susan Phillips, an assistant professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois.

In addition to offering individual programs for children of incarcerated parents, those involved in the child welfare system and the criminal justice system should create a strategy for how to serve the population that bounces back and forth between the systems, Phillips said.

“The state of the field is that we know there’s some things that are noxious to kids going to prison, and we have programs that address these pieces, but there’s no coordination,” Phillips said.

Seldom is the family able to access the full array of the things it needs, Phillips said.

The public systems are fragmented in that, one serves the children’s needs while the other serves the parents’ needs, and there’s not much coordination, she said.

“You’re talking about a group of families that are disproportionately using state resources and still not getting good outcomes,” Phillips said. “We might blame the families, but I think we do better to look at the inadequacies of the systems and particularly the coordination of the system.”

Because of state budget reductions, more people are looking for cost-effective ways to serve children of incarcerated parents, said Dee Ann Newell, the executive director of Arkansas Voices for Children Left Behind.

Like Oklahoma, Arkansas also has a high incarceration rate.

Arkansas Voices began in 1994 as a coalition of 32 organizations to offer direct services, advocacy and training to children of incarcerated parents and their families. All of the coalition’s programs are regularly evaluated by performance measures or outside evaluators, according to its website.

“We are very interested in quality, and we want to do it in the most cost effective way,” Newell said. “Through the years, we’ve been able to cut to the chase and we know exactly what we want to accomplish.”

Mentoring is one of many programs the coalition is able to offer to children and their families. The group works on a case by case basis, evaluating the needs of each family. Arkansas Voices served about 358 families, or 1,200 individuals, last year.

The main ingredient for serving children of incarcerated parents is figuring how to better sustain the relationship with the parent, Newell said.

Newell said she will be at legislative hearings in Arkansas next week to try to point out the fact that if you remove a parent from a child’s life due to criminality and you fail to provide economic support for that child, you oftentimes push that child further into poverty.

“I think it makes sound sense,” Newell said. “If the state and the guys of the department of corrections and the judiciary have decided it’s important enough to put this parent behind bars, it’s important enough to do something for their child.”

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