Girl Scouts Beyond Bars keeps incarcerated mothers connected with their children

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Ariana Totty was just a toddler when her mother, Melonie Totty, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for second-degree murder.

“It affected my family a lot,” Melonie said. “I think it was hard for Ariana because she didn’t have her parents there.”

Ariana’s father was a co-defendant in the case and remains in jail.

When Melonie was released earlier this year, Ariana was a 19-year-old. But their bond was strong thanks to regular visits over the past 15 years organized by Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, a program of Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma.

“We have to spend time together every month,” Melonie said.

“I think that helped a lot,” she added. Without it, “we wouldn’t be so close”.

Organizers say the goal of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is to build relationships between incarcerated mothers and their children. By doing so, they hope to break the cycle of trauma that can put these children themselves at higher risk of incarceration. The program is open to Girl Scouts and their siblings of any gender.

In addition to Oklahoma, Girl Scout chapters in the following states offer Beyond Bars programs: Arizona, California, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.

The program in eastern Oklahoma began 20 years ago with five girls. Today, it serves around 500 girls and their siblings under the age of 18.

Once a month, the children are picked up and taken to one of the two participating structures: Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, about an hour from Tulsa, and Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, an hour and a half from the city.

These visits facilitate one-on-one time between mothers and children in structured group activities. Activities may include singing and activities meant to teach life skills and resilience, including how to deal with anger or shame, build a support system, and ask their mother what happened during the triggering event his arrest and incarceration. Mothers participate in mandatory leadership classes before the children arrive and learn the skills they will then teach to their children. Often a game is incorporated to make it more child friendly.

The visits are a way for mothers to relearn how to parent, especially during a difficult time, said Shannon Luper, Girl Scouts Beyond Bars of Eastern Oklahoma program director.

One of Ariana Totty’s most fondly remembered activities was creating a family cookbook, which included Melonie’s recipe for Pecan Chocolate Chip Cake with Chocolate Frosting.

“I love the cake she makes and it’s easy,” Ariana said.

Although they haven’t baked the cake together yet, the two are learning to live together as mother and daughter after nearly two decades apart.

Break the cycle

Luper said the activities are designed to help mothers engage with their children. They are also meant to provide a safe setting for difficult conversations.

“We’re trying to teach our kids how not to end up on the same path as mom — what’s that like? How did mom get to where she is?” Luper said. “Not so ‘That’ is that wrong with you?’ But what happened?'”

Mothers who participate in the program must also participate in a parenting class that asks them to examine the circumstances that led to their incarceration. Outside the prison, Girl Scout volunteers and staff regularly check on the children between visits to help them adjust to daily life without their mothers.

“I think it’s hard to be a girl today,” said Regina Moon, president and CEO of Girls Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma. “I think it’s hard to be a parent today. And we know that some of our girls face multiple challenges.

Oklahoma has one of the highest per capita incarceration rates for women. And children whose parent is locked up are more likely to end up in prison themselves as adults.

“We know we are helping to break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration,” Moon said.

Support visits

Melissa Noel, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University, said she believes the Beyond Bars program has a positive influence by removing feelings of exclusion and isolation often experienced by children of incarcerated parents.

She said it also helps prepare young people for prison visits, which can be traumatic for families and children.

“Prison visits can create ‘secondary prisonization’ in which these young girls are unable to avoid prison control and surveillance, involuntary separation, coercive contexts and loss of rights with their mothers,” said Christmas.

“These young girls may feel like they are spending time with their incarcerated mothers during their visits,” she continued. “Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is on the right track in preparing for and encouraging these visits.”

She noted, however, that the program focuses only on mothers, but either parent can have an impact on children.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesman Josh Ward expressed support for the program.

“Girl Scouts Beyond Bars provides a structured environment for children impacted by incarceration, creating pro-social interactions between a child and their incarcerated parent,” Ward said in an email.

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Kristi Eaton is an Oklahoma-based freelance journalist, writer and broadcaster. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and elsewhere. Visit her website at KristiEaton.com or follow her on Instagram or Twitter @KristiEaton.




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