By Ana M. Cedeno, President and CEO Big Brothers Big Sisters of Broward County
During this National Mentoring Month I celebrate the 1,117 boys and girls in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Broward County program who have been matched with mentors this past year. These mentoring relationships result in powerful positive change that will define these children as they grow into successful adults.
In spite this success, however, my heart still breaks for those kids facing adversity who may never have the opportunity to experience a mentoring relationship. I’m particularly concerned for one group of kids – children of incarcerated parents – who are increasingly overlooked as state and federal funding shifts to other priorities or dries up altogether.
Close to 2.7 million children in the United States – including nearly 200,000 children in Florida – have parents who are in jail or prison. According to national statistics, half of these kids are under 10-years-old. Their lives are shattered when their parents are arrested, and they fall into a rabbit hole of worst case circumstances.
They first live through the circumstances surrounding the parent’s arrest – unhappy and miserable at best and horrific and frightening at worst – often fraught with substance abuse and violence. Then they experience the total disruption of their family when the parent is taken to jail, often living through financial difficulty, social stigma and shame. These innocents in many cases end up in foster care, separated from their siblings, further upending the only life they’ve ever known. And, because incarcerated parents often have their parental rights terminated, these kids typically spend their entire childhood in a foster care setting.
All these elements converge to create a plethora of negative results. These kids have behavior and academic problems. They often repeat their parents’ behavior by turning to drugs, alcohol and crime at an early age. They’re usually angry and sometimes violent.
And sadly, children of incarcerated parents have a 70 percent likelihood of ending up in jail themselves.
Mentoring offers the best chance of stopping this slide into repeating their parents’ behaviors. It reroutes the path of these children’s lives and sets them on a road to productive adulthood. In fact, children who participate in mentoring through Big Brothers Big Sisters are positively impacted on multiple levels. In an independent, nationwide study, Little Brothers and Little Sisters were:
- 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs;
- 27% less likely to begin using alcohol;
- 52% less likely to skip school;
- 37% less likely to skip a class;
- More confident of their performance in schoolwork;
- One-third less likely to hit someone; and
- Getting along better with their families.
Because 31 percent of the children in the Broward’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program – about 100 kids – have parents who are incarcerated, we offer the Mentoring Children of Promise (MCOP) program specifically to address their issues.
Unfortunately, although the need is great and the impact impressive, funding for the program continues to decrease. To support one youth for one year in the MCOP program, the cost is an average of $1,500. Comparable care for one youth in the child welfare system ranges $14,000 to $35,000 per year.
We encourage the community to reach out to legislators to let them know we care about these children, and funds should be made available to support them. We have a responsibility to give these kids a second chance at a happy childhood.