Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is breaking the incarceration cycle

The program is a growing resource for children and their incarcerated mothers, and its results are highly encouraging.



Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma’s Chief Community Development Officer Sheila Harbert. // Valerie Grant

In the 15 years Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma has offered the national program Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, it has transported more than 3,500 children to visit their mothers in prison.

The results have been remarkable. The local Girls Scouts Beyond Bars program is recognized as one of the premier programs in the country. GSBB helps daughters with incarcerated mothers foster healthy, lasting relationships.

Aggression among participating Girl Scouts has decreased more than 70 percent, and substance abuse documented among some of its older girls has fallen by 80 percent.

But the program’s most impressive statistic is that all GSBB children, many of whom grew up surrounded by violence and poverty, are beating the odds and breaking the cycle of recidivism.

Not one girl who has completed the GSBB program has been incarcerated, says Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma Chief Community Development Officer Sheila Harbert. “In spite of all that’s stacked against them, they’re going to know who they are and that what they do matters.”

How Sheila Habert found her calling

Although Harbert never had an opportunity to participate in Girl Scouts as a child, she’s making up for that today as an adult.

Since the inception of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma GSBB chapter,  Harbert has dedicated her time and talents to Girl Scouts in a role she says has become her calling.

As a coordinator for GSBB, she helps implement a family unification program that provides a circle of care for an incarcerated mother, her children and the caregiver.

“Children of incarcerated parents don’t have advocates a lot of times, but that’s what I am — I want to fight for them,” Harbert says. “If they don’t have anybody to protect them for whatever reason, we address that at the troop with the mother and the child.”

Harbert’s personal desire to volunteer in women’s prison ministry led her to a part-time position with Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma in 2003. Originally known on the local level as Project MEND (Mothers Encouraging and Nurturing their Daughters), GSBB was founded in Maryland and is federally funded through a
Department of Justice grant to Girl Scouts USA.

“Children of incarcerated parents don’t have advocates a lot of times, but that’s what I am — I want to fight for them.”

Reliable transportation keeps children in touch with their incarcerated mothers

Harbert and a colleague helped bring the project to life by using Girl Scouts vans to transport young girls to visits with their mothers at Turley Correctional Center.

Additionally, the children participated in Girl Scouts’ curriculum. That first month, the program grew from five to 15 girls, and as a new troop leader learning about the organization, Harbert’s eyes were opened to the needs of not only the incarcerated women, but also their vulnerable children.

“In the Girl Scouts meetings, the children began to tell me their fears and some of the things they’d gone through,” she says. “I’m listening to their stories and realizing they don’t have a voice.”

With the highest female incarceration rate in the nation, Oklahoma is home to thousands of children who must visit a correctional facility to see their mothers.

But young girls ranging from 5 to 18 years of age aren’t the only children affected by a mother’s absence. With assistance from a small grant, GSBB staff and volunteers began picking up both Girl Scouts and their brothers (up to age 12).

“The children were excited about this, and we represented a connection to their moms,” she says.

Girl Scouts facilitates programs for the girls; the grant helps train other organizations like the Tulsa Dream Center, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Martin Luther King Center in Muskogee to work with the boys. The reunification portion of GSBB is the only Girl Scout program that includes boys.

GSBB grows with help from GKFF and Hille Foundation

By the mid-2000s, the program received new funding from Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation and the Hille Foundation. This led to a substantial increase around 2008, at which point Harbert was brought on full time.

With support from GKFF’s Amy Santee, Harbert says she learned the ins and outs of nonprofit fundraising. Consultants served as valuable mentors to help Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma identify additional community needs and potential funding, helping the program become sustainable. Harbert took a grant-writing course, the program grew and she began researching ways to further develop the relationship between a child and her incarcerated mother.

“I needed to find out how the Oklahoma Department of Corrections worked,” she says. “Women could literally be housed in two to three facilities during their incarceration, and as a child, how would you know where to visit your mom?”

Programming helps incarcerated women learn and grow

As part of GSBB, Harbert wanted to reach out to the mothers during their intake assessment and implement Girl Scouts programming specifically for children with incarcerated parents. The curriculum could continue seamlessly as the mother moved from one facility to another.

Establishing connections with wardens and administrators across the state was challenging, but today GSBB collaborates with Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, Kate Barnard Correctional Center, Mabel Bassett Correctional Center and Turley Correctional Center.

“Women could literally be housed in two to three facilities during their incarceration, and as a child, how would you know where to visit your mom?”

“We work with the mothers on leadership in prison and engage with the children at a troop somewhere in the community,” Harbert says. “Then we bring them together at the correctional facility.”

Harbert and her team, including GSBB program manager Shannon Luper and coordinator Jackie Benson, later added nurturing parenting skills to the mothers’ leadership sessions, which the Oklahoma Department of Corrections eventually adopted as policy. As a result, mothers who complete the Girl Scouts curriculum can earn credits toward time off their sentence.

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program Manager Shannon Luper // Valerie Grant

Establishing healthy parent-child relationships, healing trauma

The program also helps kids be kids again. It seeks to help the incarcerated women develop appropriate relationships with their kids and re-establish healthy parent-child roles. Kids who experience trauma have to grow up fast, especially if their mother is incarcerated. Harbert says that when women become incarcerated and get used to being essentially treated like children, they start in many ways to act like children. The skill-building program focuses on replacing the mental and emotional capacity of these women with an adult mindset.

GSBB eventually began partnering with the Tulsa drug intervention program Women in Recovery and also was awarded additional funding from GKFF to establish a re-entry program.

“Within six months of release, we check to see what services the mothers have received from DOC,” such as a GED or drug treatment, Harbert says. “Whatever they’re lacking, we work with them to get them home.” Facilitators work to connect the women with services needed to re-integrate into society, including obtaining items like copies of birth certificates, state-issued IDs, mental health support, drug treatment or halfway home support.

Harbert says leadership from Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma President and CEO Roberta Preston has been key to the evolution of GSBB during the past 16 years. Preston’s corporate experience has helped develop a strategy to fund programs without collapsing current funding avenues.

GSBB cares for the girls while preparing mothers for life after prison

The Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma GSBB chapter currently serves 30 schools in Tulsa, Muskogee and Okmulgee while working with incarcerated mothers statewide.

As the women complete their sentences, a Girl Scouts continuum program allows Harbert and the other coordinators to keep a close eye on the children. They stay busy with Girl Scouts programming that includes monthly visits to mom, as well as troop activities such as peer-to-peer outings, school troop and robotics activities, earning badges, selling cookies and, if age appropriate, participating in a sister-to-sister program that teaches etiquette and social skills.

“We could literally see a child up to six times in one month,” Harbert says. “We have served more than 4,000 children in this program, and we are helping an average of 240 women per year.”

“Whatever they’re lacking, we work with them to get them home.”

Through weekly parenting sessions and meetings with re-entry coordinators, mothers participating in GSBB regularly interact with a Girl Scouts counselor, representative or volunteer to stay accountable and understand their role as an adult.

The success of GSBB for Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma is spreading, and Harbert regularly fields inquiries from interested troops across the nation.

Additional funding and resources always will be needed, but more than anything Harbert says the program values caring volunteers to help with coordination efforts.

Community support from people who want to “get on that bus and help us show these children a better way” demonstrates there’s life beyond drug deals, violence and poverty and drives home the Girl Scouts’ core mission.

“We’re building girls of courage, confidence and character,” Harbert says.

 

Meet Shania and Shamari Smith

Shania and Shamari Smith participate in the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program. // Valerie Grant

Sisters Shania and Shamari Smith visit their mother through the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program.

Besides the monthly visits, the girls participate in troop programming, including learning about anger management, as well as how to make s’mores and slime.

When they visit their mother, Tracie, at the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, the girls discuss music, family and their dreams. Shamari hopes to become a veterinarian. Shania wants to tap into her artistic instincts and love of makeup. She also wants to make sure her mom quits smoking.

 

College Connect

Engagement with mothers and their children inspired Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma to officially launch Girl Scouts Beyond Bars College Connect in fall 2017.

“I meet women every day who wished they had gone to college, but they didn’t have the support of their families,” Harbert says.

College Connect, sponsored by QuikTrip, provides college preparatory services for teenage girls, primarily in grades 8 through 10. The program is open to anyone, but currently recruits from the GSBB program. Right now, 30 participants have signed up for help writing résumés, filling out financial paperwork and understanding how to apply for college. The information is incorporated into weekly troop meetings.

“In the short time we’ve been doing the program, the girls are excited about their education and can envision their careers,” Harbert says.

 

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