Ariana totty was only 2 years old when her mother went to prison. Melonie Toty would spend the next 17 years behind bars watching her toddler grow into a young adult.
Luckily, Melonie learned of a Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma program that would give her the opportunity to see her only child regularly without being distracted by other family members. As a Girl Scouts Beyond Bars participant, “We’ve been able to spend time together every month,” says Melonie, who was released earlier this year. “It was important for our relationship.”
Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of women in prison in the United States. The Children of Incarcerated Parents Task Force reports that about 4,600 children in the state have incarcerated mothers — and most of those children previously only lived with their mothers.
Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma’s Girl Scouts Beyond Bars has served up to 500 children each year. It is a program that lasts throughout childhood, while the mother is incarcerated, which offers comprehensive services, transportation and programs. While not the first or only council to conduct the program, the Eastern Oklahoma program serves the most children per year, and local leaders have been called upon to share best practices with more Girl Scout tips.
Data shows that children with a parent who is incarcerated are about three times more likely to be incarcerated themselves. In the 20 years the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma ran the program, not a single girl who participated was sentenced to incarceration in the state of Oklahoma. Several thousand children and mothers have participated over the past 20 years.
“I think it’s hard to be a girl today,” says Regina Moon, President and CEO of Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma. “I think it’s hard to be a parent today. And we know that some of our girls face multiple challenges. This program, Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, is really for this very specific audience of girls whose mothers have been incarcerated. We know this program is needed.
Moon added that Oklahoma currently ranks among the highest in the nation in terms of ACE scores — which stands for negative childhood experiences — for young people.
“So we know there are a lot of issues that we, being on the front lines with girls from kindergarten through high school, can have an impact on and improve their lives,” she says. “When we are able to offer this program, the ultimate goal of which is to reunite mother and daughter and build the relationship, we know we are helping to break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration.”
Changing the path
The East Oklahoma chapter of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars began 20 years ago, with a grant from Girl Scouts USA.
“As Oklahoma has such a high number of incarcerated women, we applied for a grant and received the seed capital to be able to support these children and families,” says the program manager. Shannon Luper, who was working with a prison ministry when she heard about the new program. She started volunteering for over a year before becoming a staff member.
The program initially had five girls enrolled with two mothers at Turley Correctional Center in Turley, Oklahoma, she said. The program has expanded to Mabel Bassett Correctional Institution in McLoud and Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, and currently offers programs at both sites.
The program is not only open to Girl Scouts, but also siblings of girls in the program. Children are picked up in town and then travel to one of two facilities, Luper explains. Once at the facility, there are lots of songs and activities. The mothers are informed of the events of the day during a preliminary meeting before the arrival of their children. Moms also deliver words of wisdom. All the while, moms and kids are being watched to make sure everything is in order.
Luper says the program also provides a safe space for kids to ask questions, like, “How did Mom get where she is?” This gives children the opportunity to learn how some decisions have serious consequences. “It gives them an open door to be able to stop and think about the decisions they’re making, and whether they’re going to end up on a bad path or not.”
For some children, the monthly meetings are the only opportunity they will have to see their mother. In addition to bonding activities, visit topics can range from managing anger and building a support system to understanding how mum was incarcerated and developing a positive identity. .
“The majority of our children were actually living with mom, before their incarceration,” she adds. “Imagine not only the trauma the child faces that day – seeing his mother handcuffed, arrested and escorted – but also that you are automatically homeless. So you have no say in what happens in your life, who you’re going to live with, whether you’re going to be with your siblings, whether you’re going to be separated, all of these things happen instantly for these children.
Reconnecting with mom, Luper says, gives kids the opportunity to learn that it’s not their fault.
For Ariana, one of the activities she most remembers during her time on the program was creating a cookbook that incorporated different recipes from moms. Melonie has included a cake recipe – a concoction of cookies and soda that cooks in the microwave.
As Ariana figures out her next steps, Melonie has started cosmetology classes. There are always firsts for the two – such as a recent visit to Gathering Place – with a strong relationship evident as the pair learn about the world around them. Today, the two are learning to live together as mother and daughter after nearly two decades apart. Thanks in large part to the interaction they were able to have through Girl Scouts Beyond Bars.