It was only when Rachel Valdez was in jail that the guilt hit her.
Valdez, 36, of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, was doing time in Suffolk County jail for stealing to support her drug addiction. Her three children were living with family members. She thought they were doing fine, until one day behind bars she got a call from her then-5-year-old daughter, Mehquantash.
"She said, 'Mom, if I promise to be good, will you promise you won't leave next time you come home?' " Valdez said. It was only then that she realized how her absence was affecting her children.
"I was so disgusted with myself," she said. "Are they going to forgive me when I get home?"
It's not just the parents who are punished when they are sentenced to a jail or prison term. Their children suffer, too.
Valdez was lucky - her close-knit family on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation took in her kids.
But statistics show that children of incarcerated parents are more at risk of failing in school, of acting out, and of eventually going to jail themselves, advocates say. A 2001 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cited a study that found 70 percent of young children with mothers in prison had psychological or emotional problems, and 50 to 70 percent of such children had problems in school.
To counter this, the Williston Park nonprofit Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence is beginning a mentoring program for children of incarcerated mothers in Nassau County.
The program is funded by a $150,000 federal grant.
"One of the real strong draws for this program is to potentially break the multigenerational cycle of drug abuse and criminal involvement," said Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Williston Park group.
The program, which Reynolds expects to begin in December, will match 50 children with volunteer mentors from the community.
The organization is teaming up with the Long Island Council of Churches, which will search for volunteers; and Mentoring Partnership of Long Island, which will structure the mentoring program.
Jean Lahage Cohen, executive director of Mentoring Partnership, said mothers in jail will be encouraged to place their children in the program.
"The goal is to give the children a person who's available on a consistent basis," Cohen said. "Somebody who will encourage them to do well, to study, to stay in school, to make healthy choices."
Mentors are not therapists, and they won't take custody of the children or tell their caregivers what to do, she said. Instead, the mentors will volunteer to spend a few hours a week with their mentees, to "provide another sounding board, a different perspective," Cohen said.
If the three-year program is successful in Nassau, Reynolds said he hopes to expand it to Suffolk.
"We're very excited," said Elizabeth Loconsolo, general counsel for the Nassau County Sheriff's Department. "It would make incarcerated mothers a little less stressed to know there's a group like this out there working with their children."
Valdez, who is out of jail, sober for three years, and on her way to earning a cosmetology degree, said she thinks a mentoring program could have helped her children while she was in jail. Her normally even-tempered son, Kumat, 18, would have blowouts at home, while her daughter, now 11, blamed herself for her mother's absence.
"I think it's a wonderful thing to do," she said of the mentoring program. "I think my kids could have benefitted from something like that."