October 10, 2023, Durham, NC – iRT is pleased to announce that it has received a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to explore the characteristics of effective mentors who are mentoring children of incarcerated parents (COIP).

Recent reports have shown that over 2.6 million youth have an incarcerated caregiver in the United States.1 COIP often face family instability, stigmatization, and stress that may put them at risk for negative developmental outcomes. For example, research has shown that COIP may be at an increased risk for substance use in late childhood and early adolescence, including alcohol, cannabis, and prescription drugs. Some mentoring programs aim to combat the negative outcomes associated with being a COIP by pairing them with a caring adult who may able to provide them with support to cope with the loss of a parent to incarceration, and therefore reduce the negative outcomes, such as substance use, associated with being a COIP. Mentoring is a promising youth development intervention for this special population of youth, and due to the unique needs of and difficulties experienced by COIP, mentoring program staff may need to give special consideration to accepting, training, and supporting mentors paired with COIP. Despite the fact that these mentors need to have additional knowledge or skills beyond those of mentors matched with youth from other populations, there is limited research on what makes mentoring impactful for COIP or to guide the work of mentoring program staff members.

Through funding from the NIDA, iRT will examine the impact of a variety of background, educational, attitudinal, vocational, and educational characteristics of mentors on their match and mentee’s outcomes. For example, one consistent finding in the mentoring literature is that mentors who have a background in a helping profession, be it through their education or career, have mentees with more positive outcomes. iRT will utilize an existing dataset from over 1,300 COIP obtained from a randomized controlled trial evaluation of the impacts of enhanced mentoring practices for COIP (Stelter et al., 2023). Mentors who participated in the randomized evaluation completed surveys prior to being matched with their mentee which assessed their personality, interpersonal skills, and background experiences. Mentors and mentees who participated in the study also completed surveys after being matched to report match closeness and relationship quality. Participating mentees and their caregivers also completed questionnaires about the mentee’s educational, behavioral, relationship, and emotional outcomes. These data will be used to determine which characteristics of mentors predict positive outcomes for mentees.

More specifically, because COIP are at an increased risk for substance use, iRT aims to identify characteristics of mentors that are most effective in reducing substance use and antecedents of substance use in COIP. In addition, iRT aims to examine characteristics of mentors that are most effective in promoting high-quality and long-lasting mentoring relationships. Research has shown that mentoring relationships that are high-quality may predict more positive outcomes for mentees. The trust, mutuality, and empathy involved in high-quality mentoring relationships may be particularly impactful for mentees who may not receive the amount of trust or empathy they need for positive developmental outcomes due to the loss of a parent to incarceration. In addition, if matches end early, mentees may experience feelings of confusion, abandonment, and fear. COIP may be especially negatively impacted by premature match endings because they may already experience confusion, fear, or distrust due to the previous loss of a parent to incarceration, and they may have difficulty developing a meaningful relationship with an unfamiliar adult mentor. For these reasons, it is essential that mentoring programs have the knowledge needed to promote long-lasting and high-quality mentoring relationships. Findings from this project, which will provide insight into the characteristics of mentors that may promote longer mentoring relationships of higher quality, may help mentoring program staff improve their mentoring practices to recruit, train, and retain volunteer mentors for better youth outcomes, including youth with incarcerated caregivers.

Findings from this project will not only add to mentoring programs’ knowledge about mentor characteristics that can positively impact COIP, but it will also inform the future development of resources that mentoring program staff can use to identify mentors that may need additional support to serve COIP. Some mentors, who may not possess characteristics associated with positive outcomes for COIP, may benefit from receiving training before being matched with a mentee or supplemental support during the mentoring relationship, so they can build skills to positively impact the lives of at-risk youth.


  1. Sykes, B. L., Carlson, M.J., Meyer, D.R., & Pettit, B. (2014). Mass Incarceration, Family Complexity, and the Reproduction of Childhood Disadvantage. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 654(1), 127-149. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716214526345
  2. Stelter, R. L., Stump, K. N., Rhodes, J. E., & Kupersmidt, J. B.(2023). A randomized controlled trial of enhanced mentoring program practices for children of incarcerated caregivers: Assessing impacts on youth and match outcomes. Journal of Community Psychology51(8), 3216–3242. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcop.23017