New Girl Scout Troop Boosts Confidence Among Daughters of Incarcerated Parents
March 8, 2016
TACOMA – Nine-year-old Patience sat at a table with three other girls and her stepmother, cutting out patches they could attach to brown Girl Scout sashes. They laughed, talked, recited the pledge and learned to fold a flag.
In other words, it’s a normal Girl Scout troop. Except the girls here share a secret they generally don’t tell others – they all have a parent in prison.
Patience’s dad has been incarcerated since she was a toddler.
“After I finished talking to him (her father) on the phone when I was little, I would start to cry because I wouldn’t see him very often,” Patience said. “All my other friends get to live with their mom and dad and it’s hard.”
The Girl Scout troop is the result of a partnership between the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC), and Girl Scouts of Western Washington. They plan to launch a series of “community troops” in western Washington to help girls like Patience gain self-esteem and cope with the tough emotions kids with incarcerated parents often experience.
More than half of the 2.3 million people behind bars nationally are parents to children under the age of 18, according to a 2010 analysis by the Pew Charitable Trust. In Washington state, a 2015 DOC survey showed that 7,917 offenders — or 46 percent of the offender population — reported having one or more minor children.
The community troops are for girls who have a parent in prison, or recently released from prison. In addition to traditional Girl Scout activities, girls have the opportunity to talk with their peers and scout leaders about how incarceration has affected them and their families. The experience is something DOC and Girl Scout officials hope will help build girls’ resilience.
“Girls who have incarcerated parents can feel or be viewed by others as having a stigma attached to them,” according to Janet Francis, a community corrections supervisor in Tacoma who is part of the team spearheading the effort. “Our troop offers them a place where they can participate in the regular activities of Girl Scouts without fear of judgment or embarrassment by others. They can talk freely about their situations and feelings in an atmosphere of support and understanding.”
The community troop, which met for the first time last month at the Tacoma Resource and Opportunity Center, is part of the national Girl Scouts Beyond Bars (GSBB) program. GSBB began in 1992 as a National Institute of Justice initiative. GSBB has dozens of troops across the country. The DOC and Girl Scouts of Western Washington also plan on launching community troops in King and Kitsap counties.
In addition to the community troops, GSBB has troops that meet at Mission Creek and Washington Corrections Center for Women, as well as the Monroe Correctional Complex. These troops are focused on helping girls maintain and strengthen bonds with their incarcerated parent through visits, and allows parents to plan and participate in activities with their daughters.
Amy Graves, a program coordinator for Girl Scouts of Western Washington, says those troops are a way to keep incarcerated parents involved in their children’s lives. Distance and or a lack of financial resources are all reasons children may not be able to see their parent in prison, she says, adding GSBB is one of the few opportunities offenders may have to nurture relationships with their children while they’re behind bars.
“It’s important to maintain that parent-child bond,” Graves said. “Our program allows parents to remain in that parent role and help them to be confident in this role.”
The community troops, such as the one Patience belongs to, focus on offering emotional support to daughters of incarcerated parents and their caregivers.
Patience and her stepmother, Annette, who live in Pierce County, try to visit Patience’s father once a month. But it’s not always easy because he’s housed hours away at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in eastern Washington. Annette encouraged Patience to join the troop in Tacoma after Patience attended a weeklong summer camp last year hosted by the Girl Scouts of Western Washington in partnership with the DOC exclusively for kids with incarcerated parents. Annette says being accepted by other kids boosted Patience’s self-esteem and she hopes to continue that through GSBB.
“I want her to be around more girls that can relate to her because they are experiencing the same thing as her,” Annette said.
Challenges growing up
Experts say children of incarcerated parents are inadvertent victims of their parent’s crimes, often experiencing emotional and psychological problems other children do not.
A study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that children of incarcerated mothers experience emotional trauma that often lingers throughout childhood. Sometimes the trauma begins the moment their parent is arrested, the report stated, noting that one in five children witnesses the event, which causes shock, bewilderment and stress. Sometimes children may be forced to live with extended family members, friends or other caregivers, which can cause even more stress.
As children grow up without their parent, they can experience a wide range of emotions, from feeling shame for their parent’s actions and fear of terrible conditions they imagine their parent may be living in while in prison. They may also mistakenly feel that their own behaviors somehow caused their parent’s actions that led to incarceration, according to the study. The study also found that children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely than their peers to be incarcerated as adults.
Beatrice Giron, a program specialist with DOC’s family services unit adds children of incarcerated parents frequently struggle in school because of the low self-esteem caused by trauma of separation.
“Their emotional and academic struggles can go unaddressed because they’re often told not to talk about their situation, Giron said.
It’s a situation, she says, the DOC and GSBB want to change.
“They are not always free to discuss their parent’s incarceration without feeling shunned or labeled in one way or another,” Giron said. “My hope is that we can empower these girls and break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration by providing an avenue for these girls to voice their struggles while having fun at the same time.”
Twelve-year old Kayonna says she is an example of that.
While the rest of her troop ironed badges to their sashes, she proudly shared a poem she’d written with one of the troop leaders:
Walking through this world
Not knowing what life will bring
Trying to understand the meaning of these awful things
Saying ‘Thank You Jesus’
You won this thing
How I want to be, my victory
It’s a poem she says was inspired by the experience of having an incarcerated mother.
“I express myself whenever I’m sad and it helps me when I write,” Kayonna said. “It just makes me feel like I’m free to say what I want to.”
She’s living with a relative while her mother is incarcerated at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women. In addition to attending the community troop, she visits her mother once a month with a GSBB troop at the prison.
She says GSBB has given her the confidence to talk to her mother about her incarceration, as well as every day topics like what’s going on at school.
“It made it to where I’m not that scared to tell my mom what I think,” Kayonna said. “I’ve been able to build a better relationship with my mom.”
Patience adds GSBB makes her feel like she’s not alone.
“I get to share with people who have moms and dads in prison,” Patience said. “It’s good for kids to talk about it because it makes them feel better.”
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is open to all girls between 5 and 17 whose families have been impacted by incarceration. There are still spots available in the Pierce County community troop. For more information, contact Amy Graves, program coordinator of Girl Scouts of Western Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org or Bea Giron, DOC program specialist at email@example.com.