Their mothers may be convicted prostitutes, thieves, murderers
and drug dealers, but the girls of Girl Scout Troop 1500 want
to be doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, social workers and marine
Working to break the cycle of crime within families
and make these dreams come true are the Lone Star Girl Scout
Council, The University
of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, the Crime Prevention
Institute and the YWCA.
Darlene Grant, of the university’s School of Social Work,
is surrounded by girls of Troop 1500.
“Current estimates indicate that 1.3 to 1.5 million children
in the United States have an incarcerated parent,” said Dr.
Darlene Grant, associate professor of social work and associate
dean of graduate studies at the university. “These vulnerable
children face unique difficulties and their growing numbers and
special needs demand attention.”
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Troop 1500 was established in 1998 using
a Maryland venture as a model for a visiting program for women
in prison and their daughters. There are more than 30 such programs in the country
and only two in Texas.
Troop 1500 will be the subject of a PBS documentary by
Ellen Spiro of the College
of Communication to air next year.
“Despite the fact that they are in prison, mothers are still important
in these girls’ lives,” said Grant, who has been evaluator of Troop
1500 since its inception. “But bonds have been broken, and the program
works to rebuild the relationships.
“I think the biggest fear for most mothers in prison is
that their child will also end up there.”
There are 45 girls,
ranging in age from 6 to 17, registered in Troop 1500. When mothers
get out of prison, their girls become “alumni” and
most still attend select meetings acting as big sisters, said Julia
Cuba, troop leader and
coordinator. Now a graduate student in the School of Social Work, Cuba was
hired by the Girl Scouts to help start the Beyond Bars program
Leader and coordinator Julia Cuba (far right) listens to
Girl Scouts in Troop 1500.
According to research conducted by Grant, the number
of female prison inmates has skyrocketed since 1980 and 80 percent
in prison have daughters.
Ninety percent of these women are single parents and two-thirds of women
in prison in the U.S. are women of color.
Their daughters are six times more
likely to land in the juvenile justice system than children whose
parents have not been in jail, Grant said.
These at-risk adolescent
girls have identity and self-esteem issues as well as the need
to work through anger they may feel at being
in prison the chance to spend time with their daughters also helps the mothers.
The warden at Gatesville Hilltop Prison (90 miles northeast of Austin) reports
that the behavior of the women involved in the program has improved.
of local Troop 1500 sell cookies in February and occasionally go
on camp outs, but this is where similarities to other Girl Scout troops end.
The troop meets three times a month. A licensed therapist from
the YWCA conducts group therapy at a meeting held at the School
of Social Work the second Wednesday
of the month.
The girls’ big excursion together is a once-a-month trip
to Gatesville to visit their mothers in prison. The mothers and daughters
share a meal, do
each other’s nails, sometimes have a facial and generally catch up.
Then, they get down to the real business at hand: team building, literacy
decision-making curriculum, communication-building skills work, life skills
activities and group therapy.
“There’s a lot of hugging, kissing and tears,” said Grant. “The
girls crave the love of a mother that other family members might berate.
Spiro’s documentary on Troop 1500 is being filmed at the
women’s prison in Gatesville.
courtesy Ellen Spiro
“I worry about how society vilifies these women and especially
how that affects the girls,” she said.
Since the drop-out
rate for adolescents with incarcerated parents is high, the program
also teaches the girls about the importance of staying
also how to avoid early pregnancy and lessons in substance abuse prevention.
“And social skills—like not yelling at potential
Girl Scout cookie customers!” said
“We want to make sure these girls get all the resources
they need to stay out of prison themselves,” said Cuba. “Prison
wrecks your life. It taints records, closes doors to career building
and acts as a substitute for
a much needed mental health system in Texas.”
Troop 1500 are encouraging: 96 percent of the 45 girls have not
been pregnant before the age of 18; 93 percent have
and 100 percent have not been arrested.
The Beyond Bars program
also provides support to guardians (grandmothers and other relatives)
who are caring for the daughters. And, it
helps prepare and
support mothers in making the difficult transition from prison
to the outside world—on that day she is given $50 and a
set of street clothes and released.
Troop 1500 caught the attention
of Spiro, an award-winning film producer from the university, who
is directing the PBS documentary.
Hair Ego,” “Roam Sweet Home” and “Atomic
Ed and the Black Hole,” have been broadcast nationally and
around the world.
Spiro is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship,
and she has won two Rockefeller Fellowships for her films. Karen
Emmy Award for “Ella Fitzgerald—Something to Live
For,” is producing
the documentary, girls interview their own mothers.
courtesy Ellen Spiro
The girls are not only the subjects of the film, “Troop
Scouts Beyond Bars,” but also work as crew members. The documentary
is funded by the Texas Council on the Humanities and PBS and is
scheduled to air
Grant and Cuba are writing a companion book for the film.
“I began my involvement with the troop as a volunteer,” said
Spiro. She then started conducting media workshops with the girls—training
them to use cameras and editing systems “so they could understand,
in a hands-on way, the power of media representation.
“They are now empowered by the process and are currently
taking active roles in the production as cinematographers and interviewers,” said
The girls, in fact, are conducting interviews with their
own mothers, which has been a transforming experience, Spiro
“Rather than being the mere subject of the camera’s gaze,” she
said, “they are using the cameras in ways that give them the power to ask
really difficult questions of their mothers.
“The mothers, on the other hand, have been amazingly receptive
to the process and seem to want the opportunity to share honest
concerns with their daughters.”
In a promotional trailer for the documentary,
the girls ask their mothers questions like: “Why did you start selling
drugs again after you had spent time in jail?” “Do you think you’ll
be better when you get out?” “What
did you think the first night you were in prison?” “Were
you around drugs when you were little?”
mothers are equally poignant. “She was six years
old when I was locked up, and it probably turned her world
up side down,” said one
woman, who is serving a life sentence for euthanasia.
a recent meeting, girls learned how to make masks from guest
artist Benné Rockett.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t be a mother or parent
because you are locked behind bars,” said another woman serving
time for organized crime activities. “I
think the only way you stop being a parent is when you
are dead and six feet under.”
The only problem with this program is that
there are not more of them, said Spiro. “But
resources are slim and we hope that our documentary will
change that and help it grow.
“Girls are not only learning how to build relationships
with their moms, but also learning how their mothers made bad choices
and how they can make different
Most of the stories are heart wrenching. One girl’s mother
has been in prison five different times. Another 14-year-old girl’s
grandmother became ill and went into a coma. The girl had to move in with
an abusive cousin—who
would not give the girl her medication—and
she reacted with severe depression and anger, Cuba
“It didn’t help that when we went to visit the mother at Gatesville,
she turned to her daughter and said, ‘I got to get pregnant again so I
can have me a pretty one!’
“The girl cried the whole way home and tried to commit suicide
several times that year,” Cuba said.
She desperately needs
the support of a consistent, loving family and friend network,
“She is slowly building that at a new home with a different cousin,” she
said, adding that troop leaders and mentors
have increased the amount of attention they are giving the girl, and she has
been given leadership roles within the
troop to build her self-esteem.
Grant gets her hair braided by girls of Troop 1500.
“Her grades are good, she has lost weight from eating better
and exercising, and she reads a book a week,” said Cuba. “Her
education will save her life.”
In addition to therapy at the
Wednesday evening meetings, the troop is often treated to guest
occasion, the girls
heard from a self-defense instructor and
at a recent meeting, local guest
Benné Rockett from IDEA Gallery helped
the girls make masks. These will be part
an exhibit at the gallery, at 701 Tillery
St., on May 8.
Members of the Austin Junior League became
volunteers for the troop this year and attend
go on the Gatesville
“They are also acting as mentors, and I think the volunteers and
the girls have learned a lot from one another about people from
different walks of life,” said
Cuba, adding that many social work students
also volunteer to work with the girls.
In addition to the prison
visit, the girls take other field trips once a month—sometimes
back to the university where they interact
with college students.
“We challenge the girls to meet new students and find out what they are
studying, what classes they like and dislike and what they plan to do with their
said. “These kinds of interactions
familiarize the girls with higher education
opportunities and let them see the diverse
group of people who are striving for careers
“The hope is the more they are exposed to higher learning,
the more natural the idea will be in their lives.”