Shaniqua’s mother is a drug addict who is in and out of prison. Shaniqua, 13, has spent her entire life living with her grandmother in a dangerous neighborhood in Irvington, N.J., where she must stay inside to keep safe, says the Newark Star-Ledger. Every other week, Shaniqua gets a reprieve from her tumultuous life when she meets with friend and mentor Angela Lee. The goal is to show Shaniqua, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, the world outside Irvington – even if only for a few hours.
Lee, an accountant, is one of dozens of mentors who volunteer with Youth Consultation Service. The agency started a program this year to help children whose parents are incarcerated by matching them with adult mentors willing to spend time with the kids. It’s part of a nationwide effort to help out these youths. Approximately 1.5 million children under the age of 18 have a parent in prison. In New Jersey, about 40,000 children have at least one parent behind bars. It’s a largely overlooked population that social service agencies are trying to target because surveys show a majority of children with a parent in jail wind up in trouble with the law themselves. “It’s a population that falls between the cracks in a lot of states. There’s no agency that tracks these kids,” said Christopher Mumola of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has started the Mentoring Children of Prisoners Initiative and has awarded grants to 221 agencies across the country to target children with incarcerated parents.