Children of Incarcerated Parents

Mentoring Children of Incarcerated ParentsThere has been a significant movement in the mentoring field over the last several decades to provide intentional mentoring relationships to youth who have experienced the disruption, stress, and trauma associated with having a parent incarcerated and absent from the home. Policymakers and local service providers both recognized that the dramatic increase in incarceration rates in the 1990s and 2000s had led to the destabilization of many families, particularly in impoverished communities and among families of color.i A growing body of researchii has also highlighted the increased risk factors and vulnerability of these youth, with mentoring being prominently considered as an intervention that can provide positive role modelling, social-emotional development, and other supports when a child’s parent is incarcerated for a period of time. There has also been much discussion among families, practitioners, and young people themselves, as well as advocacy organizations like the Osborne Associationiii, about the importance of interpreting research accurately, communicating it sensitively, and challenging problematic narratives about potential risk factors, ensuring that young people facing the incarceration of a parent do not internalize negative messages about their own identities and futures. To this end, many programs serving youth with an incarcerated parent intentionally train mentors to listen to and affirm young people, reframe negative narratives or self-perceptions, and support youth in processing their experiences.

This targeted form of mentoring expanded significantly in the 2000s with both public and private investment in programs like Amachi, which utilizes a typical community-based mentoring model via the organizational efforts of faith-based institutions. These types of focused programs continue to be popular with funders and policymakers and recent years have seen further public investment in strategies to bring higher-quality services to children of incarcerated parents by increasing the capacity of general mentoring programs to serve these children well.

An example of this is OJJDP’s Mentoring Children of Incarcerated Parents Demonstration Program, which utilizes a practitioner-researcher partnership to develop and evaluate new mentoring practices that serve the needs of youth whose parent or guardian is incarcerated. In partnership with MANY, The Center for Evidence-based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and Innovation Research & Training, the program is supporting 20 sites as they implement an assets-based mentoring approach and assess the impact of enhanced mentoring program practices for children who have an incarcerated caregiver.

What does the research say about mentoring children with an incarcerated parent?

In 2016, the National Mentoring Resource Center released a review of the research base related to mentoring children with an incarcerated parent. This review examined the relevant research on the effectiveness, the moderating factors, and the implementation of efforts to date to improve the lives of young people impacted by the incarceration of a parent through mentoring relationships. The review highlighted several noteworthy possibilities based on the available research. Although far from being well-established through rigorous research, these possibilities include:

  • Program-arranged mentoring for the children of incarcerated parents has the potential to contribute to observable improvements in their behavior, relationships, and their emotional well-being.
  • Positive outcomes from mentoring may be more evident while the youth are actively engaged with their mentors, although sustaining the length of the mentoring relationship for the children of incarcerated parents is apparently difficult for programs.
  • The benefits of mentoring for this population may be influenced by the child’s capacity for trust and resilience, the strength of the relationship between child and the incarcerated caregiver, and whether this person is the child’s biological parent.
  • Processes involving positive youth development, resilience and coping skills, and self-esteem may be instrumental as pathways through which mentoring is beneficial for children of incarcerated parents.

The review also offered recommendations for practitioners based on the available evidence, including:

  • Utilization of a networked approach that heavily involves caregivers and other caring adults to create a web of support in addition to the mentor.
  • Connecting families to other services and supports as needed beyond mentoring.
  • Using a positive youth development approach to provide youth with broad support and opportunities to thrive.
  • Exploring strategies for extending the benefits of the relationship over time, especially through the identification of subsequent post-program mentors.

What does the NMRC offer on mentoring children with an incarcerated parent?

Broad Evidence Reviews

Reviews of Relevant Practices

  • Many programs serving youth with an incarcerated parent find ways to offer support to parents and families in addition to the mentoring relationship. Read the review of the mentoring practice of family support and the accompanying insights for practitioners.

Blog Posts


Implementation Resources

  • published 2 tip sheets written by youth who have or have had an incarcerated parent. One is for mentors, and one is for service providers. Both provide practical advice for how to support youth facing the incarceration of a parent.
  • This resource, Finding Mentors, Finding Success, provides information about the match closure process, and identifying additional mentoring relationships in preparation for closure, which has been identified as a key factor for youth with an incarcerated parent.
  • Going the Distance: A Guide to Building Lasting Relationships in Mentoring Programs, offers tips and tools for promoting match length, a critical factor for children with an incarcerated parent.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)’s Investments in Mentoring
for Youth with an Incarcerated Parent

Select Additional Reading

i  Glaze, L. E. & Maruschak, L. M. (2008). Parents in prison and their minor children. Bureau of Justice. Statistics Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
ii  Bernstein, N. (2007). All alone in the world: Children of the incarcerated. New York: New Press.
iii  The Osborne Association (2005). Children of Incarcerated Parents’ Bill of Rights. Retrieved from:

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