iRT Presents Results of Evaluation of National Demonstration Project Designed to Enhance the Impact of Mentoring on Children of Incarcerated Parents

Posted by jmeyer on February 18, 2022

iRT Presents Results of Evaluation of National Demonstration Project Designed to Enhance the Impact of Mentoring on Children of Incarcerated Parents

When a parent or caregiver of a child is incarcerated, the impact of incarceration on the child can be a traumatic experience with long-lasting effects. Children of incarcerated caregivers are susceptible to a wide range of negative outcomes, from depression and low self-esteem to substance abuse and delinquent behavior.

To develop new avenues of support and early intervention for youth potentially impacted by the incarceration of a loved one, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) funded a multi-year, multi-site national initiative, the Mentoring Children of Incarcerated Parents (MCOIP) Demonstration Project, in a pair of grant awards. The first award focused on developing and implementing mentoring program enhancements to better serve youth impacted by caregiver incarceration, and the second award focused on evaluating the effectiveness of the new program enhancements.

Research and evaluation specialists at Mentoring Central, a division of innovation Research & Training, partnered with researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Boston (UMB), and with Youth Collaboratory, training and technical assistance providers, on the project. Youth Collaboratory was funded to develop and implement the program enhancements with 20 mentoring programs around the country serving large numbers of children with an incarcerated caregiver, and Mentoring Central and UMB received funding to evaluate the effectiveness of the enhancements in this multi-site, multi-year project.

“For decades, mentoring programs have served youth with an incarcerated parent; however, these programs have never been evaluated at scale. Furthermore, individual research studies have studied the impact of making small individual changes in program practices, but we know of few, if any, studies that have rigorously evaluated a national effort to make major multiple changes in program functioning. In fact, most studies have capitalized on analyzing pre-existing datasets; whereas, this unique and competitive award allowed for collecting data from mentors, mentees, parents, and program staff prospectively as part of a large national effort to enhance mentoring programs,” said Dr. Katie Stump, Research Scientist at Mentoring Central and statistician on this project.

The evaluation involved conducting a randomized-controlled trial to test the effectiveness of the enhancements on youth. Half of the mentees enrolled in the study and their mentors were randomly assigned to the enhanced mentoring program practices group. Mentees in the control group and their mentors experienced the traditional, business-as-usual practices at their mentoring programs. The study involved new matches participating in a traditional one-on-one mentoring relationship.

Program Enhancements

Enhancements included providing additional staff and mentor training about the population of children of incarcerated parents; discussing goals and strengths during initial match meetings, providing additional and more frequent match support that focused on identifying and building strengths in mentees; engaging in community events; and providing additional supervision and support to mentoring program staff members.

The focus of the mentor pre-match training was on the specific needs of children with an incarcerated caregiver and an overview of the positive youth development perspective that was infused throughout the enhancements. During the first meeting of the mentor and mentee, the mentoring program staff guided the mentee to discuss their goals and strengths to inform the activities the mentor and mentee would do together. During their mentoring relationship, enhancement matches were encouraged to participate in community events and community service activities to support mentees’ connections to the community.

Enhanced staff supervision was an enhancement practice that is not commonly found in the mentoring literature. Mentoring program staff who were assigned to the enhancement condition participated in bi-weekly meetings to discuss each match in the enhancement condition in the study where the conversation focused on what was going well in the relationship, areas for mentee growth, and child safety and well-being.

Another enhancement involved staff providing more in-depth match support. “Match support was an important program enhancement,” said Stump. “The mentoring program scheduled consistent check-ins with the mentee, caregiver, and mentor throughout the relationship.” Check-ins were scheduled more frequently than usual and included more in-depth conversations that included reviewing the mentee’s strengths and other areas of growth.

To learn more about the enhanced practices and access implementation guides for several of the enhancements, you can learn more from the practitioner partner, Youth Collaboratory.

Data Collection and Evaluation

As program enhancements were created and deployed in the field, a rigorous external evaluation process was developed by the Mentoring Central research team to measure the effectiveness of the enhanced program at 20 locations in 15 states across the country. Overall, more than 350 staff members and nearly 2,700 mentors and mentees took part in the study.

The mentees who participated in the project ranged in age from roughly 8 to 18 years old; a little more than half were female, and a little more than half were Black. Notably, 82% had a biological father who was incarcerated, and 26% had a biological mother who was incarcerated. Approximately 24% of the mentees had multiple caregivers who were incarcerated.

The mentors who participated in the project ranged in age from 18 to 79 years old. Approximately 20% of the mentors were Black; 17% of the mentors were employed in a helping profession; and 23% had some experience with incarceration themselves, such as having had an incarcerated caregiver.

Throughout the study, Mentoring Central distributed web-based surveys to mentees in the program, their custodial caregivers, and their mentors. Participants were asked to complete surveys when the child joined the mentoring program; and then at six, 12, and 18 months after their matches started meeting. The surveys provided detailed data and insight into the impact of the enhancements on the mentoring relationship and the mentees.

Match outcomes indicating the strength of the mentoring relationship, such as how close the mentors and mentees felt towards one another, were evaluated. Match longevity, which included whether the relationship ended early and unexpectedly, as well as how many months the relationship lasted, was also assessed. In addition, the evaluation examined the impact of the enhanced program practices on mentees.

Following the guidelines of the OJJDP award, Mentoring Central measured a large number of outcomes. Because this was a strengths-based, positive youth development-oriented intervention, evaluators also collected positive outcomes in addition to behavior problem outcomes, such as positive thoughts about themselves and their lives.

So, what did Mentoring Central find in its evaluation, and how can it help mentoring programs in the future?

Results and Positive Outcomes

Mentoring Central researchers found a positive impact of the enhancements on internalizing problems, which included depression, loneliness, and global self-esteem. Mentees in the enhanced programs also increased in their positive self-cognitions, such as reporting more gratitude and hope for the future, along with greater life satisfaction and goal focus. Given that the enhancements were developed to be strengths-based, with a focus on positive youth development, the positive findings for positive thoughts about themselves and their lives were encouraging. “If a program is really focused on a specific issue or has specific goals in mind, then they’re more likely to get positive outcomes associated with those specific goals,” said Stump. “These enhanced practices had a positive orientation, and programs were trained to incorporate this orientation into everything that they did. We think that because they were directed and supported in taking a strengths-based approach to mentees and mentoring, this orientation was reflected in the youth outcomes, changes that we may not have seen otherwise.”

In addition, evaluation results indicated some surprising outcomes regarding substance use and intention to use substances. “Overall, the incidence of substance use was rare because the mentees ranged in age from 8 to 18,” said Stump. “But the results did show that the mentees in the enhancement group reported less substance use and less intention to use substances. These findings suggest that this intervention had a really big preventive impact on mentees that we were not expecting to see.”

The enhancement practices resulted in many benefits for young people, including promoting a more positive outlook on life and less use of illegal substances. However, these positive outcomes were seen only while the enhancements were being implemented. Once the enhanced practices ended, some of the growth dissipated, and the two groups of mentees, namely, control and enhanced, looked similar to one another again in their adjustment.

General feedback from mentors and staff was positive about the enhanced training and match support practices. Despite this positive feedback, consistently implementing all of the enhancements faced some barriers. “I think the biggest barrier, and this is pretty consistent in the mentoring field, was a lot of staff turnover within the mentoring programs,” said Stump. “Youth Collaboratory recorded all of their trainings, so they knew everyone was getting the content, but maintaining buy-in on this project was a struggle, and everyone put in a lot of work to ensure that those working on the project at the end were as enthusiastic about it as those working on it at the very beginning.”

Thoughts for the Future

This research project was an important first step in demonstrating the benefits of enhanced training and support to mentoring program staff members who were trying to change their usual activities to provide a better experience for mentors and mentees. It was clearly a challenge to make multiple changes in the service delivery system of a mentoring program simultaneously as opposed to phasing one change at a time. The evaluation not only examined the process of doing these changes but also how it impacted the youth who were program participants.

“This is a powerful study showing that you can implement changes in your program which will result in positive growth in mentees,” said Stump. “How we maintain those effects once the enhancements are no longer in play is still an unanswered question. How do we ensure that a child’s growth during mentoring doesn’t drop off once mentoring ends? And if you have someone on a positive trajectory, how do you make sure they stay on that trajectory? I think those are questions for the future and questions we’re still working on answering.”

Mentoring Central is also developing additional resources to serve this population. For example, the Mentoring Central team has created new professional development opportunities for mentoring program staff members and training lessons for delivery to mentors on topics relevant to serving at-risk populations. The Mentoring Central researchers can build upon this study to create a customized evaluation plan for mentoring programs serving children of incarcerated parents, as well as conducting quality improvement assessments and plans to improve program practices.

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