Tulsa Girl Scouts Help Families Reconnect
Find out how a unique program sponsored by the Girl Scouts helps women who are incarcerated in Oklahoma reconnect with their children and find a way to a better life once they’re no longer in prison.
Gina Colbert, mother of three, was not around on her daughters’ first day of school. She didn’t help blow out any candles on her son’s birthday. Gina Colbert was not around because she was arrested, on the way to her car, outside of a motel, for conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison. With their father having passed away, and their mother incarcerated, her children were put in the care of their aunt. Gina had been removed completely from the lives of her children.
With little or no access to their mother, the children suffered.
“They were struggling,” Gina said. “They were having issues in school, and being disobedient to their aunt. They had no structure in their lives.”
The children were only given access to their mother once or twice a year, until the Girl Scouts of America stepped in. “Now I see them every week,” Gina said.
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is a nationwide program designed to help girls (and boys) who have been impacted by the justice system. The primary focus of the program is family reunification. Girl Scouts Beyond Bars reconnects children to their incarcerated mothers because “when a mother becomes incarcerated, it’s like the death of a parent,” said Sheila Harbert, director of the program.
Because Oklahoma incarcerates more women than any other state, and 80 percent of those women are mothers, children, too often, become the innocent victims of families torn apart.
“Just because we’re in prison doesn’t mean our kids are going to be,” Gina said, though the odds are stacked against them in that regard.
It is widely accepted that children who lose their mothers to the justice system run a higher risk than others of ending up in the justice system themselves. These children are also more likely than others to suffer from depression, show aggression, perform poorly in school, or skip school entirely. This is because, “when a child’s mother goes to prison, the child takes on some of that guilt,” Harbert said.
The program, while allowing parenting and motherhood to take place again, teaches children that the paths their mothers have chosen are not the paths they must walk themselves; whatever path they do walk, they do not do so alone, “and then I see that shame removed,” Harbert said.
The program puts the mother back into the child’s life, even if only for a few hours a week. Those few hours are highly structured and monitored by Girl Scouts staff. The children’s safety is paramount, and only non-violent offenders are allowed to take part in the program. The mothers receive parenting classes, and learn how to interact with their children more effectively. The Girl Scouts even offer incarcerated mothers a chance to receive an education because, eventually, they’re going to be out on their own again.
“I thank god for it every day,” Gina said.
Through the Girl Scouts she was able to receive a hotel and restaurant management certificate while incarcerated.
“This time I have an education,” Gina said, “something to stand on, so I can provide for my
Since Gina’s children have utilized the program, “they’ve opened up so much. They’re smiling. They’re able to make friends, and just be children. I think without their mom, they had a lot of insecurities,” said their aunt Stephanie Callahan.
This story is nothing new to the Girl Scouts. Their program works because they do not see these women as drug addicts, criminals, or menaces to society. The Girl Scouts program looks at the women through the eyes of the children from whom they’ve been separated.
The importance of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars cannot be overstated because neither the state nor the federal government offers a program like it. The state has no system in place to assure the welfare of children of incarcerated women. They are not counted, kept track of, nor looked after by the state, and their numbers continue to grow.
In light of this, Governor Mary Fallin signed House Bill 1197 in April, creating the Children of Incarcerated Parents Task Force. Harbert, along with Alice Blue, a senior planner with the Community Service Council of Tulsa, represent eastern Oklahoma on the task force. The task force’s aim is to review current legislation that affects children of incarcerated parents, and improve upon it. This includes improved outreach and education, data collection, research, safety protocols and economic supports. In August, the task force will come together to make a recommendation to the Speaker of the House.
“Just being able to be a mother for a few of hours is the best part about it,” Gina said.
For children, those few hours a week could mean the difference between a productive, healthy adolescence, or falling through the cracks as yet another casualty of the system.