Wayne County Program Reaches Across Michigan

When Jerry Dash, executive director of Volunteers in Prevention, Probation & Prisons, Inc. (VIP), begins his presentation on VIP’s Mentoring Children of Prisoners program, inmates typically greet him with distance and mistrust. After Dash shares his personal experience, however, the wall of mistrust immediately melts.

“This initiative has taken me full circle from where I was at,” said Dash. “Twenty-two years ago I was the incarcerated father with two small children.”

He says inmates’ biggest frustration is the belief that there is nothing they can do to help their children. “When they begin to understand the statistics and the chance of their children ending up where they ended up—that’s the last thing they want to see happen, the last thing. I use that to say ‘but there’s something you can do and that’s what this program is all about.’”

Although VIP has been in existence since 1970, the agency just began its Mentoring Children of Prisoner’s program in October 2003. Dash credits VIP’s relationship with the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) as the key source of referrals. VIP was connected to the DOC through the governor, who was a former VIP mentor while serving as State Attorney General. It took about three months for VIP to formalize its relationship with the DOC and develop a plan to identify the children of inmates.

“We had to learn a lot about how the department operated statewide,” said Dash. “We developed a partnership and a trusting relationship with them, but that took a lot longer than we thought.”

DOC and VIP Locate Children
After a series of discussions, the DOC came up with two ideas that were immediately implemented by VIP. The first idea was for VIP to visit all 42 institutions across the state, generating awareness with inmates and staff about the program. VIP created an aggressive time line and completed presentations at all 42 facilities within four months. VIP developed posters, brochures and enrollment forms, which they left at the facilities. Enrollment forms were collected during the presentation when possible; forms filled out after the presentation were sent to the DOC’s central office and then forwarded to VIP for follow-up with the caregivers.

The DOC’s second idea entailed modifying new inmate orientation to include information about the VIP Mentoring Program and specifically about the opportunity for inmates to refer their children to the program when they enter the prison system. Ten thousand new inmates enter the Michigan prison system each year and about 52,000 children across the state have a parent in prison, according to Dash. VIP has received 500 children referrals since January. Although, they are pleased with the outcome, VIP continues to recruit aggressively, carrying out additional prison visits.

“It takes 500 referrals to get 100 kids matched,” said Dash. “A lot of organizations don’t understand that.” He said on average VIP locates only half the names of children they are given due to incorrect contact information. Of the remaining names, about half of the caregivers are receptive to the program and 80 percent of those actually complete the necessary training to be a part of VIP Mentoring.

When a child is matched, VIP notifies the DOC and they pass the information along to the inmate’s counselor, who then notifies the inmate. The inmate must contact the caregiver or child for any additional information on how the match is doing.

“The Department of Corrections has embraced this initiative immensely,” said Dash. “We had a big door open for us to get this process going. If we hadn’t had the governor’s support to begin with, it may have taken us three additional months to try to somehow figure out how to work our way to the director.”

Finding Faith-Based Volunteers
VIP’s relationship with the governor also proved helpful in locating faith-based mentors. Although countless attempts had been made over the prior eight years, VIP previously had very limited success working with the faith community. The governor connected VIP with the director of the Office of Community and Faith Based Initiatives, a state office she had established upon election. The director had previously met Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, Sr. and was familiar with Amachi.

“We obviously were blessed,” said Dash. “It was an immediate connection. They said ‘we will take on the role that Rev. Goode had in Philadelphia,’ which is: we will identify the churches, talk to the pastors, get pastor’s commitment [and] get them to commit to finding a coordinator who then you can train to begin to work with, to get the Amachi model going.”

Currently, most of VIP’s mentors are volunteers from the community at large. However, this is rapidly changing as VIP focuses more on faith-based organizations and churches continue to sign up as partners.

Data Collection and Record Keeping
VIP is in the process of putting their management information system on line at the churches to allow church volunteer coordinators to key in monthly data on the matches. The data will automatically transfer to VIP, enabling them to monitor each match and generate their monthly reports. The MIS system was specifically designed for the VIP Mentoring Program, and the reports that are generated are identical to the reports the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services will be asking grantees to complete, according to Dash.

“This is a big project,” said Dash. “This is all we do now. We don’t mentor any other children. This is really our mission and will be, probably, for the foreseeable future.”


Fall 2004