June 27-Aug. 14, 2003
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Helping mothers find hope
Casteen: Affirmative action rulings consistent with U.Va.’s policy
Gomez promoted to vice president
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Garson champions health care reform
Community briefed on U.Va.’s plans for growth
Law, Darden build on financial strengths
Blackford remembered for eventful life
Artist goes with the grain
From Georgia O’Keeffe to majority status
Helping mothers find hope
Girl Scouts, U.Va. psychologist help inmates become better mothers
U.Va. 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.
U.Va. 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

When 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 them.

Now, at age 20, Turtle is in prison for life.

Fluvanna 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.
Fluvanna 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.

But 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 Scouts.

The 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.

“The changes I’ve seen in women [like Turtle] have been phenomenal,” Dansey said.

Last year the Girl Scouts of USA got funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s 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.

“Women 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.

Three years ago, Dansey brought the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program to the Fluvanna women’s 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 aren’t 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.

After a while, Dansey said she noticed that prison life put particular strains on the mother-daughter relationships. She decided to ask for Loper’s help.

Loper 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 training materials.

Almost 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 Loper’s Web site at http://curry.edschool.virginia.edu/prisonstudy/subpages/facts/facts.html)
Whether they’re repeat drug offenders or convicted murderers, if they haven’t 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 she’s been impressed by how many of the women manage to stay optimistic and excited about being mothers.

“They want to matter in their children’s lives.”

Other 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 now.

Many 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 children’s 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 child’s developmental level.”

After the scene, Loper’s 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 mother’s absence.
“The mothers try to pack a month’s worth of contact into a half-hour” in regular prison visits, Loper said.

“Research 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 their control.

“Do they understand that their mother is sorry, that it wasn’t the children’s fault, that they’re still loved? That’s the big elephant in the room,” Loper said.

Through 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 what’s happening, they see their mothers leading the Girl Scout activities and trying to make something of themselves.


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