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Film documents scout troop's efforts to break cycle of crime

By Liz Austin
Amarillo Globe-News
Associated Press
March 18, 2006

AUSTIN — "Mommy!" Jessica yelps, as she yanks the letter from her mailbox. She leaps onto the chain-link fence that surrounds her yard and quickly climbs over, running inside to tear open the note.

"It's not easy thinking about you all the time," she reads aloud. "Send me some pictures. Tell everyone I said hi. I love you. God bless you. Mama."

Watching that scene, the opening of a documentary airing Tuesday on PBS, Ida Sutter can hardly believe she and her daughter survived the emotional rollercoaster of her three-year incarceration for heroin possession and driving under the influence.

She credits Troop 1500, an Austin-based chapter of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars that aims to break the cycle of crime in families through counseling, mentoring and fun activities. The scouting program was created in Maryland in 1992, and now serves about 900 school-age girls in about 40 troops in 22 states.

"I don't know what I would have done without the program," said Sutter, 42, who was released on parole in December and is now a stay-at-home mom. "They come up with some really good ideas of stuff to do together, to open up feelings and to deal with emotions that you're trying not to show."

Sutter and her 11-year-old daughter are one of four families profiled in "Troop 1500," airing nationwide as part of PBS' Independent Lens series.

The film takes viewers inside the Hilltop Prison in Gatesville, about 80 miles north of Austin, where the girls visit their mothers once a month. It also follows the girls home, where their fathers, stepfathers and grandmothers try to rebuild family lives fractured by drugs and violence.

The girls capture the most poignant footage with their own cameras, interviewing their mothers with innocent yet provocative questions like "Why are you in prison?"

"It's not just the answers to the questions… it's the gestures, it's the silence," filmmaker Ellen Spiro said. "It's the relationship between the mothers and the daughters that you really see in a way unfold that wouldn't have been possible had it just been me asking questions."

While anecdotal evidence suggests the children of inmates are more likely to end up in prison themselves, little research has been done to prove that.

A 1989 study by the American Correctional Association found about half of the girls in the nation's juvenile detention centers had a parent who had been incarcerated, said Denise Johnston, director of the California-based Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents.

Other studies have found that prisoners' children are more likely to have low self-esteem and depression, to struggle academically and to behave inappropriately at home or at school, according to the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research group.

But, Johnston pointed out, the children of inmates face an array of challenges, such as poverty, discrimination and educational barriers, making it hard to discern the effect of the parent's criminal record.

Troop 1500 provides several services designed to help its 25 active members overcome those obstacles. Group therapy is an integral part of most meetings — held three times a month at either at the University of Texas at Austin, the Hilltop Prison or on an Austin-area field trip — and the girls receive one-on-one counseling at school.

The moms engage in group therapy with and without their daughters, and participate in workshops on life skills such as building credit and writing a resume. Even after the women are released from prison, counselors help them find work or get back their driver's licenses.

And every girl can participate until she's 18, whether or not her mom is behind bars. About 15 girls who don't need the intense therapy only come to holiday programs and summer trips.

It's a costly program, with the local area council spending about $150,000 a year on the active members and their moms for counseling, transitional services and trips to places like Galveston or Six Flags Fiesta Texas. Funding mainly comes from individual donors and grants from local foundations.

But troop leader Julia Cuba sees the rewards every time she hears from one of the 25 girls who have outgrown the troop and begun building crime-free lives as young adults. None of them have been to prison.

"They're married, they're in school, they're having babies and starting families," Cuba said. "They're coming back to the program and providing mentorship and tutoring and role modeling for the other girls.

"Many of the girls have recognized where their mothers made mistakes and they have embraced their mothers but are deciding what they're going to do for themselves."