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Prisoners’ kids focus of statewide effort

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Sarah Cherne

Sarah Cherne

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Twelve-thousand children in North Carolina have a parent in a state prison, according to the state Department of Correction.

With federal studies finding prisoners’ children are 72 percent more likely to end up behind bars, the Child Study Commission of the North Carolina Legislature last January highlighted the need to mentor those children.

Now, in the largest undertaking of its kind in the state, six independent affiliates of Big Brothers Big Sisters are teaming up in a three-year effort to serve over 1,200 kids of incarcerated parents.

With only Tennessee and Texas pursuing similar initiatives, the statewide effort is modeled on a program Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Charlotte launched six years ago to mentor prisoners’ children.

Known as Amachi, the Nigerian word loosely meaning “what one can do in the life of a child,” the program has served 500 kids.

Targeting 25 counties with the highest concentration of prisoners’ children, the new statewide initiative has received a $1.8 million federal grant, and the local affiliates are raising another $1.2 million in donations.

The Charlotte affiliate alone will serve a total of 457 kids in addition to those it already serves, adding 140 the first year, another 150 the second year and another 167 the third year.

In 2008, the Charlotte affiliate says, 94 percent of kids in its program avoided delinquent behavior, 96 percent avoided substance abuse and 85 percent improved their self-confidence.

Also participating in the statewide effort will be Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle, BBBS of Western North Carolina, BBBS of Southeastern North Carolina, BBBS of the Central Piedmont, and BBBS Services of Winston-Salem.

The agencies will work with the Department of Correction to identify and refer children, and on family visitation days at regional prisons will hand out information and encourage prisoners to get their children in the program.

Providing training for volunteers mentoring prisoners’ kids will be the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with the Charlotte-based Center for Community Transitions also providing training for the Charlotte affiliate.

The NC Prison Fellowship, which through its Angel Tree program buy gifts for children affected by incarceration, will work to connect Big Brothers Big Sisters affiliates with parents and kids, and with adult volunteer mentors from local churches.

And the state Department of Public Safety will provide targeted education for kids that will focus on gang prevention and abuse of drugs and alcohol.

Sarah Cherne, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Charlotte, says the new effort will recruit community volunteers and focus on kids who often “slip through the cracks.”

While they typically face problems such as abandonment or estrangement from their parents, problems that can increase their risk of getting into trouble, those children often are not identified by their schools and local social-services agencies and “will likely end up in the prison system without an intervention,” Cherne says.

“We believe,” she says, “that people unlocking the potential of these children and changing their trajectory is critical.”

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