Helping mothers find hope
Girl Scouts, U.Va. psychologist help inmates
become better mothers
clinical psychologist Ann Loper (center) explains a role-playing
scenario to inmates Linda (left) and Yvette during a parenting
training session June 20 at the Fluvanna maximum security
prison for women. These sessions, which complement a program
that the inmates and their daughters take part in the
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program teach the women to
be better mothers.
By Anne Bromley
she was in fifth grade, Turtle bore a child. Later,
when she was in her teens, Turtle took another wrong turn by helping
two other women murder another girl who they thought betrayed
at age 20, Turtle is in prison for life.
inmates Linda and Yvette (braided hair) hug as part of a role-playing
scenario, while other prisoners (from left) Linda, Janet,
Tracy, Charalee and Bridget observe the skit as part of a
parenting training session. These women are participants in
the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program and were to put their
training into practice when they met with their children June
28 at the prison.
despite the restrictions of incarceration, Turtle has developed
a loving relationship with her daughter, thanks to a collaborative
program of the Girl Scouts and the Fluvanna Correctional Center.
Turtle even volunteers in the program and has learned to express
her creativity, said Sarah Dansey, service area manager for Girl
program takes the girls behind prison bars to share scouting
activities with their mothers who are inmates. While the imprisoned
moms help their daughters earn badges, improving their relationships
might help the children avoid the same fate.
changes Ive seen in women [like Turtle] have been phenomenal,
year the Girl Scouts of USA got funding from the U.S. Department
of Justices Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
to expand and bolster its 11-year-old program, Girl Scouts Beyond
Bars. Dansey received the maximum grant of $40,000 for her prison
troop, thanks to the involvement of Ann Loper, a clinical psychologist
in U.Va.s Curry
School of Education, whose research focuses on how women cope
with prison life.
with parenting stress have more problems adjusting to prison,
said Loper, who said her research feeds the program and the program
feeds her research. Working with Girl Scouts Beyond Bars and Mothers
Inside Loving Kids or MILK a parenting club in the
prison, is enabling her to make practical applications with her
research so that it is immediately useful, Loper said.
years ago, Dansey brought the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program
to the Fluvanna womens prison, the only maximum-security
compound for females in the state. The program includes six day-long
visits a year, where the mothers and children, even those who
arent scouts, can use the prison yard or gym for activities.
The last event was a mock camping trip, complete with tents, marshmallows
and ghost stories.
a while, Dansey said she noticed that prison life put particular
strains on the mother-daughter relationships. She decided to ask
for Lopers help.
is refining a curriculum she offered this past year on parenting
skills specifically geared to incarcerated mothers. It could become
a model for other troops or prison programs. She plans to develop
a Web page for the Girl Scouts so others will be able to use her
two-thirds of women in state prisons have children, according
to the Bureau of Justice Studies, and the female prisoner population
has more than doubled since 1990, from 44,065 to 94,336 in 2001.
(See Lopers Web site at http://curry.edschool.virginia.edu/prisonstudy/subpages/facts/facts.html)
Whether theyre repeat drug offenders or convicted murderers,
if they havent harmed children, these women are likely to
be part of their kids lives. Loper stressed that each woman
must be viewed on a case-by-case basis. She said shes been
impressed by how many of the women manage to stay optimistic and
excited about being mothers.
want to matter in their childrens lives.
parent-training programs in prison focus on resuming parenthood
when the inmates get released, but Loper works with the mothers
to make the most of their interactions with their children right
of the women have grown up in dysfunctional families that have
negatively affected their parenting because of abuse or lack of
close attachments with their parents. Problems common to inmate
mothers include misunderstandings about their childrens
physical, emotional and social development. Loper has built that
subject into role-playing exercises. For instance, a visiting
daughter might tell her mother something, perhaps about having
a date, and the mother gets upset or angry and makes inappropriate
assumptions about the childs developmental level.
the scene, Lopers script calls for the participants to freeze.
At that point, she and the women discuss what was going wrong
and try to offer suggestions on what might have been more helpful.
Loper also teaches them about recognizing their own feelings,
concentrating on listening and asking good questions for meaningful
interchanges. The women practice letter-writing and telephone
conversations, as these take on added significance due to the
The mothers try to pack a months worth of contact
into a half-hour in regular prison visits, Loper said.
on women in prison is far behind research on men, she said.
Even less studied is the impact on children, except that having
a parent in prison makes them six times more likely to get in
trouble with the law by their teen years. Since children usually
live with their mothers, separation is more likely to be disruptive
if the mother goes to jail. The children not only lose her, but
also might lose their home and be forced to live with a relative
or other caretaker, sometimes far away. More of life is out of
they understand that their mother is sorry, that it wasnt
the childrens fault, that theyre still loved? Thats
the big elephant in the room, Loper said.
the collaborative efforts of these programs, Loper and Dansey
think they have a positive and healing impact on the children.
In addition to helping them make sense of whats happening,
they see their mothers leading the Girl Scout activities and trying
to make something of themselves.