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The Girl Scout Program Connecting Girls With Their Mothers in Prison

The Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program has served thousands of girls with incarcerated moms over the past 27 years.

For over one hundred years, the Girl Scouts have provided a place to belong for millions of girls across the country — so this year, in honor of Girl Scout Day, we're celebrating Beyond Bars, a unique Girl Scout program that unites girls with their incarcerated mothers! Founded 27 years ago, the Beyond Bars program, which operates in 15 states and 17 Girl Scout councils, aims to strengthen the mother-daughter bond, minimize the trauma that can result from having a parent in prison, and reduce the likelihood of intergenerational incarceration.  As Lolis Garcia-Baab of the Girl Scouts of Central Texas explains, “We learn so much from our parents, and they really are our closest role models.  When you remove that support, the child is really anchorless... To a little girl, it's huge." This much-needed program depends on support from private donations, so we've also provided details about how you can donate to a Beyond Bars troop near you below.

Beyond Bars began in 1992 as a partnership between the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland and the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women (MCIW). Judge Carol E. Smith had sentenced dozens of mothers during her time on the bench, and she worried about what would happen to the children of those mothers. She inquired about setting up a mother-child visitation program at the MCIW, where two-thirds of the women incarcerated were parents. The program started with a $15,000 demonstration grant from the National Institute of Justice, and meetings have been held at the MCIW every two weeks ever since. 400 girls have been part of Troop 7856, participating in all of the same activities that any Girl Scout troop would, including camping, field trips, and even selling cookies outside the prison building. "It's traditional Girl Scouts in a nontraditional setting," says the MCIW's current warden, Margaret Chippendale.

Each two-hour meeting begins with 15 minutes of free bonding time for the moms and daughters, a precious commodity when prison visits usually take place on opposite sides of a table. Then, the moms and daughters recite the Girl Scout Promise, and divide up by age to work on projects. "Many times you’ll step back and realize, 'Oh, my God. I’m in a prison,'" says Garcia-Baab. "You really feel you’re just in a troop meeting." For the girls, it's a rare chance to reconnect with their moms — and they don't let any of it go to waste. "Incarceration is tough — it’s tough for mom, but it’s really tough on children and the families that’ve been left behind," explains Chippendale. "It gives mom the opportunity to be a mother, but it gives the daughter the opportunity to have a mother."

The benefits of that contact are clear: a 2012 evaluation that polled members of the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program showed that 79% of girls in grades 4 to 8, and 86% of girls grade 9 and up, said they did better at school after joining the Girl Scouts. The girls also felt that the program encouraged them to stay out of trouble, develop healthier habits, and learn leadership skills. As Chippendale points out, the program has big benefits for the moms too. "The public tends to forget they're people first. As I will say, they're women who made bad decisions — doesn't make them bad people," she says. "These moms do not want to lose this opportunity, and they know if they get themselves in trouble, they are going to be removed from the program minimally for six months. So it truly is a benefit all the way around."

Those benefits helped the program grow, and at its peak, it served thousands of girls in 30 Girl Scout councils across the country. But when the program's federal funding ended in 2012, the challenges of paying for transportation to the prisons and other expenses proved too much for many councils. Today, 17 Beyond Bars programs remain active, and they are dependent on donations and support from their local councils. Nationally, more than 1.7 million children — half of them under the age of 10 — have a parent in prison, yet few programs provide the kind of bonding opportunities offered by the Girl Scouts' program. "There are a lot of reasons why this troop exists, but the primary reason is [to help] these girls succeed in life, especially with all the things stacked against them," says Garcia-Babb. "We provide them the support they need and keep that connection with their mom strong."

For the moms and daughters involved in the program, that connection is priceless. "When I got incarcerated, D'Amoni was 8 years old," recalls 32-year-old Kamisha Loftin. She regretted missing D'Amoni's milestones, and D'Amoni struggled too; her grades took a tumble as she dealt with her mom being away. But after joining Troop 7856, run by the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, the pair drew closer again, and D'Amoni started to bounce back. Now twelve years old, D'Amoni looks forward to every meeting, saying "I just love giving her a hug." For the moms involved, each meeting provides hope for a future — beyond the prison walls. "It’s wonderful just being able to be in her life, despite the circumstances," says 26-year-old Sapphire VanBuren, mom of 9-year-old Kuhmaria. "It’s the reason why I keep pushing in here, why I stay out of trouble. It’s all to get home to her."

How To Support a Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars programs serve many girls living in poverty and are only possible due to the support of private donations. If you'd like to support the important work of these troops across the country, we've collected a list of the regional councils offering the program. By donating, you can help make a huge difference to girls in your area!

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