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GO KIDS Articles

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars

by Jom Montalto
Corrections.com
April 12, 2006

The Girl Scouts might be best known for their jade green and brown outfits, their community volunteerism and those tiny, tasty cookies they sell each year in spring. Yet the organization’s commitment to building courage, confidence and character in all girls, regardless of their circumstances, inspires it to create a variety of programs that profoundly impact thousands of lives every day. One such effort began in the early 1990’s as a small grass roots project dedicated to connecting incarcerated mothers with their daughters.

"Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is a unique initiative that tends to stay under the radar, but it has grown in size and scope over the years through word of mouth. It started in 1992 as a joint effort between a local troop in Maryland and Melanie Pererra, who was then the warden at the Maryland Women’s Correctional Institution for Women," says Christine Iafrate, project manager for the national Girls Scouts Beyond Bars (GSBB) project.

GSBB has since grown to include approximately 40 councils nationwide, and has been receiving funds from the Department of Justice for the past four years to help expand the program even further. Prior to 2002, local councils were responsible for garnering local funds and support or had to use money from their programs to run their GSBB. Now 18 councils receive national funds through Iafrate as long as they adhere to GSBB guidelines.

"Right now, we don’t have enough funds for everyone, so we developed a three-prong model that councils must follow to be eligible for financial support," Iafrate says. "Programs must include: time for daughters of incarcerated mothers to meet amongst themselves outside of the facility, a mother-daughter visitation meeting, and an in-prison enrichment activity for the mothers."

Most councils will either strictly follow Iafrate’s model or use it as a general guideline depending on the level of commitment from the corrections facility, the mothers and daughters involved, and others that support the program.

Mother and Daughter Meetings

Maryland’s Troop # 7140, which was one of the first councils to initiate GSBB, along with an Austin, TX council, now serves as a national model for the program, and transports the girl scout daughters of 14 incarcerated mothers every first and third Saturday to the Jessup Maryland Corrections Institute for Women (MCIW). Troop # 7856 does the same at Baltimore City’s pre-release facility for 17 moms.

"The girls and their moms usually begin with the Girl Scout promise and then they’ll sing a song. Then we have some kind of lesson plan that includes a craft and discussing topics like self esteem or the importance of proper diet," says Margaret Chippendale, child advocacy manager for the Central Maryland Girl Scouts.

Chippendale also was a former corrections division manager for MCIW, which is the state’s only women’s prison, and currently houses approximately 800 women inmates.

Meetings run from one to two hours, and usually include a skills project, like the toolbox that Troop # 7140 recently built. The mother-daughter teams then break off privately, giving them a chance to talk about their lives. Activities also include team building, badge work, and a celebration that focuses on monthly holidays.

Incentives and Benefits

"These meetings have a very positive effect for both sides," says Sandra Publicover, the GSBB program manager for greater Boston’s Patriot Trail Council, whose troops have been meeting at the South Middlesex women’s pre-release center since 2005, and at the Framingham women’s correctional institution since 1998.

"It gives the girls some stability as far as giving them time to get to know their mothers better," says Publicover.

This added stability is particularly important for the daughters as they struggle with the stress of adjusting to life without their mothers and the difficulties of learning to live in a foster home or with a guardian. Along with this, the program aims to build the girls’ self esteem so they can make the right life choices to avoid going to prison themselves.

The program has a positive impact on the mothers as well. A pre-screening process reviews the inmate’s record and eliminates anyone who has a history of sexual or child abuse. Once in the program, mothers must remain violation-free or they will be immediately removed.

"This serves as incentive for good behavior because the mothers know they have no other way of visiting with their daughters. It also decreases their isolation, and encourages them to go back to their families when their sentence is completed," explains Chippendale.

"By hearing about what their kids are doing and their academics, it helps the moms think about taking classes themselves, and it gets them thinking about ways to encourage their girls to stay in school and continue with their education," Publicover adds.

According to Publicover, fostering the mothers-daughter relationship through GSBB while mothers are in prison can make their lives easier when they are released. Instead of having to cope with what could be an awkward relationship with their daughters, they can better focus on staying clean, finding housing and gaining employment.

Publicover says she posts fliers in the MD facilities to generate interest in the program. Those who want to participate must contact their family facilities coordinator who then notifies Publicover. She will contact the inmates’ daughters, their family members and guardians. If the girls are interested, they become Girl Scouts and join a local troop that participates in GSBB. Currently, Publicover has 22 girls and 16 moms involved in her program.

Chippendale and Publicover say participation rates fluctuate, but the one constant is the reinforced positive connection between the girls and their mothers each time they meet. This type of success drives the Girls Scouts to continue creating programs that help those in the community who need it most.

For more information about Girls Scouts Beyond Bars contact Christine Iafrate at (800) 478-7248 or visit http://www.girlscouts.org.