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Look Up and Hope: Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration


Mother reading to childSince 1896, Volunteers of America has been serving prisoners and their families. Reform and redemption were core values promulgated by founders Maud and Ballington Booth. Maud believed in a holistic approach when working with people touched by incarceration, and it is in that vein Volunteers of America advances with its Look Up and Hope: Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration initiative. Our mission is to break the cycle of poverty for children affected by incarceration and walk beside them as they reach their full potential.

Families in Need

More than 2.7 million children have a mother or father in jail or prison and in 2012, more than 8.3 million children had a parent under supervision by the criminal justice system. When parents are incarcerated, their arrest and imprisonment often have a profound, negative impact on their minor children. Generally impoverished to begin with, most children of prisoners become even poorer upon their parents’ arrest. They exhibit high rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and attention disorders. They are also at increased risk of homelessness, household disruption, school failure and delinquency. What becomes of these children? How do we help them and break this cycle?

Volunteers of America Response

Volunteers of America uses a more holistic and research-based approach to breaking the cycles of poverty and incarceration with Look Up and Hope: Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration. This national program is designed to support the long-term success of children and their incarcerated parent.
Look Up and Hope and its partner congregations and organizations offer prisoners, their children and the children’s caregivers a comprehensive array of coordinated, support services including vocational training and employment services; educational programming and support for all family members; cognitive behavioral therapy; mental health and substance abuse treatment; group and family counseling; life-skills and parenting classes; caregiver support groups; graduated visitation opportunities; family-centered assessments; strengths-based service planning; and mentoring. Through such a complex, multimodal approach, Volunteers of America empowers its Look Up and Hope participants with the skills, relationships, and resiliency they need to transcend the devastating effects of poverty and incarceration.

Why Volunteers of America?

Volunteers of America has over 118 years of experience in working with incarcerated populations and their families.
Our strength-based approach, focusing on three generations—the child, the mother and the caregiver (often grandmother)—is a solid commitment by Volunteers of America to stay with these families for the long-term. Our hope is that we can help them conquer the barriers so often associated with those affected by incarceration and poverty, such as substance abuse, domestic violence and mental illness. For over a century, we have been empowering those we serve to reach their full potential, and although some people can’t imagine taking on an issue this complex, we can’t imagine not doing it. 

The Results
Our purpose through this initiative is to preserve families whenever possible. Volunteers of America helps families to create and maintain economic stability; encourage and foster positive family relationships; provide emotional support for the children who suffer through the disruption caused by incarcerations, support school success; and in turn, prevent the juvenile delinquency which often stems from the troubled environment surrounding a parent’s incarceration.
We serve the whole family focusing on children, incarcerated mothers and caregivers (usually the grandmother or another kin caregiver) simultaneously, creating a spiritually collective healing process for all involved. Our communities and the nation have a huge stake in the successful reentry of incarcerated mothers after they serve their sentences. These mothers, along with their children and caregivers, are our neighbors. By providing a network of stability, we reduce the rate of recidivism helping the previously incarcerated to become healthy, contributing members of society. By acting now, we can show children another path, reducing the probability that children with incarcerated parents may enter the criminal justice system. 

What are the consequences if we don’t succeed?
Despite the explosive growth in the number of mothers who are in prison—and the potentially devastating effects of this incarceration on future generations—there are at present only a handful of prisoner reentry programs in the U.S. that are specifically designed to support whole families impacted by incarceration.

Our nation now spends approximately $63.4 billion each year to incarcerate 2.4 million people—more than any other country. If we do not act now, the issue and the expenditure associated with it will grow exponentially. If we do not act now, presently overcrowded prisons will begin releasing individuals with no support system in place, placing them and others in jeopardy. If we do not act now, the future of these mothers, children and caregivers is at risk. Let us begin now—together—to work toward breaking this cycle of incarcerating mothers, destroying families and over-burdening state and federal correction systems, where there is no adequate support system in place for individuals returning home.

We believe that our Look Up and Hope Initiative will change the future for incarcerated mothers, their children and families, resulting in stronger communities for everyone.