SE Girl Scout program aims to help mothers in jail, on probation

Posted: Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Girl Scouting isn't just horse badges, campfires and s'mores any more.

The Tongass Alaska Girl Scout Council is dealing with a serious subject - women who are incarcerated or have recently been in prison. An offshoot of a national outreach called Women Behind Bars, the Step Ahead Program is counseling mothers serving probation and helping to facilitate reconnection with their daughters.

The program has been used by a number of councils around the United States for several years, but this is the first time it has been attempted in Southeast Alaska, said Kathy Buss of the Tongass council.

"It is our vision, and a collaborate effort to help in facilitating healing, parenting skills and the re-connecting of mothers with their daughters through the use of training and activities that are grounded in Girl Scout values," Buss said. The goal of the local program is to help 50 mothers and 60 daughters. The pilot project began in June and will run through May 2004. The collaborating team includes the Council, Catholic Community Service, the Department of Youth and Family Services, faith-based entities, volunteers and Gastineau Human Services. The project is funded with a $28,430 grant.

"The hopes are that the program will help women who have been removed from the parenting role to transition back into a stronger relationship with their daughters," commented Juneau resident Candy Brower, a parole board member as well as a Girl Scout board member. "That will be good not only for Girl Scouts but for the community. Step Ahead helps Girl Scouts broaden into untapped areas."

Originally the project was to take the form of two-hour meetings during which women would learn life or recreational skills, such as first aid, quilting, baking, beading, archery, or experiential art. However, Janet Forbes of Gastineau Human Services says that the women themselves had other ideas.

"We wanted to connect women who are incarcerated with their daughters," Forbes said. "We were going to teach baking or beading one week, to have the women learn the skills, and the following week they would teach their daughters. We tried to schedule things on Saturdays at noon. But women who are on parole have a lot of programs like victim impact classes and substance abuse classes they must attend. No one was showing up. So I decided to take another approach. I had a captive audience here at GHS, and started with the women's group on Wednesday evenings. I explained what we wanted to do. The project they came up with was making a documentary about the impact of incarceration on women and their daughters. They wanted to do something that could help the rest of the community and deter women from this life."

Since Step Ahead was initiated, Forbes has shepherded a core group of six women. They have discussed many ideas and have communicated with program directors at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River. Hiland Mountain may film some of the women incarcerated there.

The women enrolled in the Step Ahead Program have talked about eventually distributing their video to other Girl Scout organizations around the U.S., and even about selling copies of the video and using the proceeds for things like daughters' traveling from outlying communities to visit mothers in prison, or for clothes for their children, Forbes said.

At this stage of the project, Forbes and her group are looking for "women who have a story to tell." For example, "A woman at Hiland Mountain, dying of Hepatitis C, was able to have a visit from her daughter because of Girl Scouts," Forbes said. "With the collaboration of Hiland Mountain, we are going to try to get footage of her and her daughter. That would be powerful. We would like to go into Lemon Creek and get footage of the women there."

Twenty of the beds at Lemon Creek Correctional Center are available for women. Most female prisoners have been convicted of drug charges or theft, Forbes said. "Women get hooked up in relationships where their partners are using drugs," she said. "The main reasons women end up in prison are usually drugs and alcohol. For a lot of them, it's a healing process to tell their story. Some of them have lost custody of their kids - some temporarily, some permanently. Many of them do not have coping mechanisms to deal with that; they just want to die; and they go back to substance abuse. This project gives them hope."

Forbes is a graduate of Texas Women's University who is professionally certified as a chemical dependency counselor in Alaska. A parole officer in Texas for seven years, she has worked at GHS as a case manager for nearly four years.

"I feel fortunate that Gastineau Human Services will allow me to incorporate programs like this," Forbes said during an interview at her office. "Lots of programs like this are being cut, and this gives us extra room to maneuver. Tongass allows me to think outside the box - and that's how we all learn."

The Council has provided the project with a camera, Forbes said, as well as a camera instructor. "You could just see the women come alive as they learned something new," Forbes said. "They were laughing and having fun. They are wonderful women. Things like this help to demonstrate that side of them."

Women with a story to tell or people with video-producing experience who would like to volunteer expertise are asked to call Janet Forbes at 780-3012.

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