Twenty years ago, the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma quietly implemented a new program that defied all stereotypes of crafts and cookies. Two decades later, that program is more timely, more relevant, and more needed than ever: Girl Scouts Beyond Bars.
Besides the death of a family member, the incarceration of a parent is one of the most traumatic experiences a girl can have. According to the Oklahoma Children of Incarcerated Parents Task Force, about 4,500 children in Oklahoma have an incarcerated mother, and more than half of those who previously lived with their mother only.
When a mother is incarcerated, it’s more than disruptive. It’s catastrophic.
Children of incarcerated parents are more than three times more likely to be incarcerated themselves. They are more likely to become withdrawn, be aggressive, perform poorly in school, and display a host of other harmful behaviors that fuel trauma, resulting in poor outcomes.
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Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is a program rooted in trauma management, problem solving, social skills development and designed to bring families together and overcome the emotional and social impact of incarceration. Each month, the girls and their siblings receive a packed lunch and are transported to visit their mothers in a correctional facility. They spend time with their mothers and participate in Girl Scout troop activities.
A child’s first trip to prison can be scary and emotional. Highly trained staff and volunteers provide emotional support and coping strategies to master fears and ensure a positive experience.
In many cases, this is the only opportunity the children have to see their mother. But Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is more than a monthly visit program.
Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma incorporates comprehensive leadership and youth development to meet the specific and unique needs of children and families while their mothers are incarcerated. This support continues after the mother is released when she faces increased barriers, from fines and high fees to biased housing, education and employment.
Between visits, the girls connect with their peers at weekly Girl Scout meetings. Mothers participate in parenting classes and cognitive-behavioural workshops accredited by the Department of Corrections and led by Girl Scouts Beyond Bars staff, accelerating their release and reuniting them with their families faster, while continuing to be supported and guided by a wide range of community resources.
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars has served up to 500 children and 350 mothers each year. The program is completely free for girls, siblings and families.
The program is essential for families to reconnect and reframe their relationships. It’s impressive to see a 15-year-old girl reunited with her mother, whom she hadn’t seen since she was 4 years old.
Or a mother who was just released two months ago after serving 17 years in an Oklahoma prison. Her daughter was only 3 years old when her mother was incarcerated. She entered the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program soon after and they are reunited today, adjusting and ready for success.
Over these 20 years, Girl Scouts Beyond Bars has served thousands of mothers and daughters in eastern Oklahoma. And understand this: no girl who was part of the program was herself incarcerated in Oklahoma. Not one.
Through this program, Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma contributes to community efforts to break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration. This is what healing looks like in our community. This is what strengthening mental health supports in our community looks like. It’s the Girl Scouts.
Regina Moon is President and CEO of Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma.