Time Well Spent

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Troop 2140 opens its meeting with a time-honored tradition. Standing in a circle in a gymnasium, two dozen girls and their mothers hold up their right hands and recite the Girl Scout promise: "On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout law."

Spoken in unison, the words ring familiar, as do the girls' activities. They sing songs. They earn badges. And, of course, they sell cookies.

It's hard to imagine they're any different from countless other Girl Scout troops in cities and towns across the country. But what makes them unconventional is the one thing the girls have in common: Their mothers are all in prison.

It's probably not what Juliette Gordon Low pictured when she started the first Girl Scout troop back in 1912 in Savannah, Ga. Modeling the group after the Boy Scouts, she hoped to give girls a similar chance to serve their communities, develop their skills, and explore the outdoors. But Low probably wouldn't have pictured the challenges girls face today either. Times have changed, and the 83-year-old organization she created is working hard to keep up.

Like schools, the Girl Scouts of America finds itself taking on greater responsibility for the social, emotional, and physical welfare of the 3.4 million girls it serves. In recent years, the Scouts have introduced programs to help a variety of special populations, including girls who are homeless, pregnant, or living in poverty.

The Maryland program is one of a handful designed to serve the daughters of incarcerated women. Founded three years ago, Girl Scouts Behind Barsis a national partnership of the Girl Scouts of America and the National Institutes of Justice, which provided the $15,000 demonstration grant to get the project under way. The state corrections department put up another $20,000, and the United Way of Central Maryland and other individual donors have also offered private support. Even the inmates have pitched in, raising $2,000 by buying Girl Scout cookies from their daughters and holding other fund-raising events.

The unusual program began at the urging of Carol E. Smith, a Maryland district court judge who had become concerned about the effects of incarceration--particularly of mothers--on inmates' children. Not surprisingly, research has found that such extended parent-child separation can prove traumatic. Children of inmates tend to experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, truancy, teen pregnancy, and poor academic performance than their peers. They are also more likely to become involved in criminal activity themselves.

In recent years, the female prison population has been growing faster than the male population. Just a decade ago, the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women housed about 200 inmates. Today, there are close to 900, and 80 percent have children--three on average. What's more, many are single parents who have had to leave their children in the hands of grandparents, other relatives, or foster parents.

A Just Reward

While other programs at the Maryland prison also involve the children of inmates, Girl Scouts Behind Bars provides the most frequent parent-child contact in an organized setting. Without it, the daughters could only see their moms twice a month on visiting days.

The girls, who range in age from 5 to 17, attend meetings with their mothers at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women every other Saturday. On alternate weeks, they meet with their troop leaders at a Roman Catholic church in Baltimore.

For the mothers, program participation is considered a reward for good behavior. To getand stay--in the program, the 30 or so women can't have had any recent disciplinary infractions. And they must have at least two years left in their sentence, a stipulation intended to avoid frequent turnover in membership.

Before their daughters arrive, the mothers meet with a social worker for about an hour to discuss the difficulties of family separation. Their stories are telling. One woman gave birth while in prison and bid her newborn baby goodbye only two hours later. Others spoke of having to hear about a crisis at home, such as the death of a relative or a teenage daughter who is pregnant, and not being there to deal with it in person.

When they get to the prison, the girls must first pass through security. Prison officials have to make sure the girls don't bring in any contraband, such as cosmetics or clothing. There are limits on the inmates' personal possessions, Assistant Warden Mitchell J. Franks explains, because any excess can become a form of black-market currency inside prison walls.

Once they're cleared, the girls proceed to the gym where their moms await. The gathering begins with 15 minutes of informal "bonding time"--time to hug, catch up on news at home, or play games. On this particular day, some of the younger girls engage in a rousing round of "musical chairs." But even such simple activities can help drive a positive message home. As the girls circle the chairs, two of the troop leaders sing a song to the tune of "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" but with verses like "Can a woman be a doctor? Yes, she can, yes, she can!"

Later, the girls break up into troops organized by age group to work on different arts-and-crafts projects. The Brownies, the youngest girls, draw outlines of butterflies and dragonflies on plastic netting so they can stitch the images with brightly colored yarn. At another table, the Juniors trace their hands on paper and decorate them with glitter to make "khamas," or "good luck hands," a Mediterranean talisman that originated in Morocco.

A Productive Partnership

Sarah Epling and her 10-year-old daughter, Heather, say shared activities like this have given them a chance to rebuild their relationship. Although a first-time offender, Epling received a stiff 10-year sentence for possession of drugs with intent to sell. "At first, I think Heather was kind of mad at me and thought I left her," recalls Epling, as her daughter stands by her side, arms tightly wrapped around her. "She was really hurt by it."

Today, Epling, a former drug user, is clean and sober and looking forward to being reunited with her daughter when her sentence is over. In the meantime, she says, the scouting program makes the separation easier for both of them to bear.

Besides being able to spend more time with her mom, 12-year-old Marvis Perry says she likes the support and friendship she gets from girls who know what it's like to have a parent in prison. "They really understand," she says. "They know how you feel." Sometimes, she adds, other children have teased her about her mom being in jail.

Rochelle Gilliam, another inmate, hopes the program will teach her 6-year-old daughter, Dominique, why she's in prison and what it's like there. "I want her to understand that I made a mistake," Gilliam says. "I don't want it to be a secret." She also likes the support her daughter gets. "I like the unity," she adds. "These girls in here stick together."

Prison officials report that the program has been a tremendous success. Not only do the women in the group maintain better disciplinary records, they say, the children have been a positive addition to the overall prison climate, even for the women who aren't in the program.

"Just the feeling of having the kids here changes a lot of the behavior of the other women," says Assistant Warden Franks.

But Girl Scouts Behind Bars has also received praise from beyond the prison walls. In July 1993, the program won the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges' annual award for the most innovative program serving high-risk youths. And last fall, the National Institutes of Justice increased its investment in the program, awarding a $61,590 research grant to the University of Baltimore to study the successful partnership.

"It's a little program with a powerful idea," says Jeremy Travis, the director of the N.I.J. "For me, the exciting core idea here is that if we put our minds to it, there are lots of ways we can keep family ties intact during periods of incarceration and not punish children by punishing the parent."

Even Attorney General Janet Reno has lauded the partnership, calling it "a model for the nation" and praising the Girl Scouts' support for the effort.

To date, federal prisons in Florida, Ohio, and Delaware and a county jail in Phoenix have all replicated the mother-daughter program. The N.I.J. is currently helping 10 other states start their own versions. This month, for example, new troops will take hold in New Jersey, Kentucky, and California.

"We think Girl Scouting has a gift to offer girls from all backgrounds," says Bonnie McEwan, the director of communications for the Girl Scouts of America. "So we try really hard to make sure girls from all walks of life have opportunities to be Girl Scouts. That means girls who have mothers who are in prison, that means girls with disabilities, and that means girls from all racial, ethnic, and religious groups."

As the Saturday meeting winds to an end, the girls and their moms form another circle, this time to sing a few favorite songs.

All too soon, it's time to go. One mother bends over to zip up her daughter's jacket. Another fusses with her child's hair, gently brushing and rebraiding it. There are hugs and tears and giggles as the girls head toward the prison exit.

On the way out, the girls pass a series of windows that look down on the gym. Most stop to wave to their mothers. A few press their noses up against the glass for one last look. Their mothers rush to the side of the room to wave back.

Vol. 14, Issue 33, Pages 30-31

Published in Print: May 10, 1995, as Time Well Spent
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