City Tech Professor Launches Mentoring Program to Help Children of Incarcerated Parents Fulfill Their Promise

Brooklyn, NY — March 19, 2009 — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has provided support to Nursing Professor Kathleen Falk to help launch the New York City College of Technology (City Tech) Mentor Program for Children of Promise.

The program aims to help children of incarcerated parents in Brooklyn achieve better outcomes: to progress scholastically and develop emotionally.

Fifteen years as a Bay Ridge resident and experience as a visiting nurse in Brooklyn inspired Falk to establish the program, with help from VISTA Americorps volunteer Judy Stoves, a City Tech law and paralegal studies student being funded by HHS.

“I know every Brooklyn neighborhood,” Falk says. “I cared for every ethnicity, every immigrant population.” She saw the need for mentoring such children, who are in danger of losing the ability to withstand adversity. When this happens, she emphasizes, “all aspects of the child’s growth and development are impaired.”

In fact, without intervention, up to 70 percent of the 7.3 million children of incarcerated parents in the U.S. also may end up in jail, observes Falk, who joined City Tech two years ago as an assistant professor. “These children develop disabilities, and often a depressive syndrome, in response to having a parent in jail,” she explains.

They tend to copy their parent’s behaviors — teenaged children become high school dropouts and disenfranchised from society and those who are younger often have poor school attendance and academic performance, are unable to build relationships and express no hope for the future.

“Their lives are shattered and they fall through the cracks,” Falk says. “All the learning theories are about modeling, and these children have no models.” Antiquated drug laws passed in the early 1990s, she explains, are responsible for more women in state and federal prisons — up 122 percent since 1991 — and 80 percent more children with incarcerated parent/s. Since many of the women are single mothers, their children are placed in foster homes or institutions, siblings are separated, and they lose all connection to family.

“One woman had 11 children and she was away for 10 years. What happens to those children?” asks Falk. “I’m determined that this project is going to get off the ground!”

Through her own research on resiliency, which started when she was a master’s student, Falk became acquainted with Private/Public Ventures, an initiative that conducts research for Big Brothers and Sisters, collecting data on mentoring children at risk. Through Private/Public Ventures, she discovered Amachi.

Founded by former Philadelphia mayor Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, Sr., Amachi — which means “nobody knows what is brought through this child” in a Nigerian language — is a one-on-one national mentoring program. “Goode’s father was in prison,” explains Falk, “and he was mentored, so this is very personal for him.” Six months after arriving at City Tech, Falk and her colleague Professor Sondra Rivera participated in Amachi training, and both were certified to train staff and volunteers to develop similar programs.

Although she now lives in Westerleigh, Staten Island, Falk’s first focus for the program is Brooklyn. Identifying children in need of mentoring is a major challenge because, as she says, “This is a silent population. The children are told not to tell anyone that their parent is away for a long time.” Potential mentees will be found via elementary school teachers, guidance counselors, and parish pastors who usually know where the children are. College chaplain Father Kevin Cavalluzzi is exploring parochial schools in poor, high-crime areas, and Falk is reaching out to parishes to recruit mentor program developers.

City Tech nursing students and the College’s Newman Club will mentor the children. Mentoring can take many forms, Falk says. “A mentor and mentee can sit on a park bench and just talk. Mentors will show the children different ways of dealing with things, and stress that they have options. It’s surprising how something so simple can make a difference.”

The program will establish an Amachi Kid Club to which the children can bring friends to attend events, including visits to City Tech to see students learning entertainment technology, culinary arts and other subjects. “These visits show that the path to higher education is within their grasp,” Falk explains. “Our students will model such behavior as studying, not doing drugs, not cheating. The program teaches how to resolve social conflict, offers hope for the future and conveys empowerment.”

VISTA volunteer Stoves, long active in civic affairs, will coordinate services this year. Falk will apply for another HHS grant to groom next year’s volunteer, help develop sustainability, involve the community and establish a network of program sites.

Falk’s commitment to healthcare evolved from personal experience. Her two brothers had health problems, and she liked nurturing them. She became the first nurse in the family, setting an example for her younger twin sisters; one is now a nurse, the other a paramedic. Her path wasn’t smooth, however. Like many City Tech students, she was a single mother in college, and needed to work. “Somehow I did it,” she says. “I had a supportive family.”

City Tech has been supportive of Falk’s work. “There is a camaraderie, which is difficult to achieve in such a large urban setting. It filters down from President Russell K. Hotzler and my chair, Kathryn Richardson, who are strong proponents of the Amachi program.”

Falk is also involved in another project focused on the health of Brooklyn residents. She is overseeing a yearlong diabetic management study examining below-poverty level individuals of several ethnic groups with the goal of increasing their healthcare literacy and improving their health outcomes.

New York City College of Technology (City Tech) of The City University of New York is the largest public college of technology in New York State. Located at 300 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, the College enrolls more than 14,000 students in 60 baccalaureate, associate, and specialized certificate programs.

For more information, please contact Michele Forsten, mforsten@citytech.cuny.edu/718.260.5979.