A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Mentoring programs complain about the lack of adult males. So one took a chance on Marc Plaskie.

"In my whole life, there was never anyone there to give me directives, and even if they were giving me directives, it was negative," Marc says. "When I was between the ages of seven and ten, there was probably a really short window period for someone to grab me before I was gone."

By now, Marc has gone and come back again. Maybe if he's able to step into the life of another kid, someone like Michael or Juliana, everything from here on out might be a little different for everyone. Is it possible to change the past by changing someone else's future?

Marc Plaskie's resumé includes years in jail -- and a 
year as a successful mentor to Juliana and her 
Anthony Camera
Marc Plaskie's resumé includes years in jail -- and a year as a successful mentor to Juliana and her cousin.

Located in a fatigued industrial park off Interstate 25, Denver Area Youth Services serves as home base for a coalition of non-profit organizations targeted toward "at-risk youth," including programs for foster kids, a child-placement agency, gang-intervention groups and a project that treats expectant mothers who have HIV or have used drugs since becoming pregnant.

For social services in Colorado -- not to mention across the country -- the last four years have been all doom and gloom. The economic downturn and subsequent city, state and federal budget cuts slashed money for programs. Meanwhile, the demand for support services grew, compounding the strain on cash-strapped agencies, some of which have been reduced to bare-bones staff or have closed up shop altogether.

Even so, DAYS was able to start a mentoring project with a federal grant picked up under the national Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program. The three-year initiative is part of President George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act; in his 2003 State of the Union address, he committed to funneling $450 million into youth mentoring, with $150 million of that focusing on children of prisoners. Hundreds of community organizations and faith-based groups have been awarded grants ranging from $60,000 annually for an agency in Hugo, Oklahoma, to $2 million a year for the Children's Home Society in West Palm Beach, Florida. Meyerhoffer's operation, which is called Mentoring Valuable People, was allocated a total of $300,000, with a mandate to set up 140 kids with mentors over three years.

A year into the project, Meyerhoffer has met his first installation requirement of thirty matches. But as the program's only full-time employee, his caseload is extremely heavy and the budget tight. There's no money for recruitment or any more advertising than printing posters. He was able to score a $7,500 donation from Qwest early on to set up an events calendar that includes a ski trip and horseback riding, but all other activities have to be covered by the mentors themselves.

Meyerhoffer has spiky hair and sideburns, and his face usually wears varying lengths of stubble. His office is small, dark and drafty but well organized. Dry-erase boards bear the names of prospective children and their ages (most are between eight and eleven), as well as the names of adult volunteers currently undergoing the sixteen hours of initial mentor training conducted by Nicholson & Associates, a consulting group for the child-protection field. Posters of ski resorts hang on the cinderblock walls, reminders of his days as a competitive downhill racer.

Meyerhoffer's childhood in Denver was far removed from the problems his clients struggle with. "I was spoiled," he admits. But he can relate to juvenile delinquency. "I was a total troublemaker. I did drugs, even stole cars. If there had been [placement homes] around when I was a kid," he laughs, "my parents would've sent me there in a second." Skiing eventually helped him channel his energy, and he moved to Aspen after high school. When his career on the slopes didn't pan out, he began taking various jobs working with troubled teens and eventually earned a business degree with a minor in psychology from the University of Colorado.

While he sometimes wonders why he didn't go into a more lucrative and less demanding line of work -- especially after having to declare bankruptcy a couple of years back and now often putting in sixty-hour weeks -- he jokingly chalks up his choice of occupation to penance for his own misspent youth. And he can't blame that on a lack of parents.

While parent/child separation due to death or divorce has long been an active field of study, in the past few years experts have started examining the impact of parental incarceration on young children. The sudden interest among social scientists and policy planners is a direct result of the United States' exploding prison population over the past twenty years. "Between 1991 and 1999, the number of children with a parent in a Federal or state correctional facility increased by more than 100 percent, from approximately 900,000 to approximately 2,000,000," the Department of Health and Human Services reports.

Over half (58 percent) of these minors are under ten years of age, according to a study by the Urban Institute, which determined that having a parent in prison can have profound consequences for a child. Immediate effects can include feelings of shame, social stigma, loss of financial support, poor school performance, increased delinquency and increased risk of abuse or neglect. In the long term, children may experience increased dependency or may regress developmentally, with "impaired ability to cope with future stress or trauma," the study reports. Instances of depression, substance abuse and academic and social withdrawal are much higher in this demographic. Children of incarcerated parents are 65 percent more likely to follow a pattern of crime and violence, Meyerhoffer says, and "seven times more likely to become involved in the juvenile and adult criminal-justice system."

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