Ian's mom was at his side to sew on his new Bobcat badge at his last Cub Scout meeting. When Ian, 7, raised his hand to say his Cub Scout...
PURDY, Pierce County —
Ian’s mom was at his side to sew on his new Bobcat badge at his last Cub Scout meeting.
When Ian, 7, raised his hand to say his Cub Scout Promise, his mother also vowed to honor Scouting tradition — to do her best to keep herself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
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And last Sunday, the first-grader wore his new Cub Scout uniform to an early Mother’s Day celebration.
It’s just like what thousands of young boys do with their moms in Cub Scouts … except to go to that celebration, Ian had to walk through two sections of razor wire to reach his mother at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.
Life has been unpredictable since Ian’s mother, Lori, 35, got involved with methamphetamines five years ago, but he’s getting to know her now as a leader and as a friend before she comes home, thanks to a Boy Scout program known as Scoutreach. Though the Girl Scouts have held troop meetings for girls with a parent in prison for years, this is the first program in the country for boys.
More about children of incarcerated parents
Boy Scouts Scoutreach program: To reach the Chief Seattle Council Boys Scouts of America, call 206-902-2331 or 206-725-5200
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars: Call the GSBB program manager for Totem Council at 206-826-2156 or visit www.girlscoutstotem.org. Mentors and volunteers are needed.
The Children’s Home Society of Washington: Organization provides information through its Parent Information and Resource Center. Visit www.chswpirc.org and look under Resources for Helping Children of Prisoners.
Children of Prisoners Library: Library is available through the Family and Corrections Network Web site at www.fcnetwork.org.
“Those are nice things to remember,” said Ian’s grandmother, Darline Connolley, as she waited with Ian and his sister, Kira, 11, in the prison gym, decked out with paper flowers. “You don’t get too many good memories.”
When the Scout mothers and others who’d been on their best behavior to get this reward poured into the gym, they lavished hugs and kisses on their children, the first of many emotions. For most, months of life were condensed into two hours.
Ian was quickly overwhelmed. He dropped his blond head to the table while his mother, long-haired and dressed in a plaid overshirt, quietly gave him space. She rubbed the back of his Cub Scout uniform until he climbed into her lap, where she whispered:
“I could hold you for hours.”
“Grief and loss”
The national statistics about mothers in prison are not cheering.
The number of incarcerated women has grown by 516 percent in the past two decades, and some 75 percent of them have children. The odds are not good for their offspring, either. One estimate is that children of imprisoned parents are six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.
“Children of incarcerated parents go through grief and loss as if a parent had died,” says Sharon Kirkpatrick, who started the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program at the women’s corrections center in 1999, and then volunteered to help the Boy Scouts’ Scoutreach program, which has been operating off and on since 2002. Both programs meet at the prison once a month, and the girls participating in the program meet again on the outside every month for continuity. From that core, they’ve also added transition and mentorship programs.
The boys are being assigned to regular packs, where only the leaders will know about their situations unless the boys choose to tell. Volunteers will take them camping.
Though the two Scouting programs are run by different agencies with different structures, there’s no difference in the children, Kirkpatrick says. They’re trying to overcome isolation, loss and, for some, living a life that feels like it has no structure.
“I felt alone away from my mom,” said a boy of 10 who came to the Mother’s Day program with his little brother because Kirkpatrick volunteered to drive them. They had not seen their mother in more than a year, and they looked as if they could not get enough of her kisses.
Prisoners who have failed as citizens can still succeed as parents, according to the Family and Corrections Network. They can help their children feel worthy and lovable.
Kirkpatrick has helped raise 30 foster kids along with her own children. When she drives down the freeway to Purdy, near Gig Harbor, she wonders what she’s doing with her time — until she sees the reunions.
The boys try so hard to portray toughness, she says, and then they see their mothers. One mother was late by 10 minutes because she’d been working and had to shower. She’s coming, don’t worry, the leaders told her son, but tears rolled down his cheek.
“Even 10 minutes is scary,” Kirkpatrick said. “He’d been disappointed many times in life.”
The Girl Scout program is better established and runs nationwide. There are 65 girls involved in Western Washington through the Totem and Pacific Peaks councils.
The Boy Scout program began with Pacific Harbors Council in Tacoma and is run by Chief Seattle Council. There are nine boys in the program, which accepts boys 6 to 16. Plans are under way to expand both here and nationally, and possibly into the men’s corrections center at Stafford Creek.
“Most of the boys involved are older than Ian,” his grandmother says, “but he loves it.”
In most regular prison visits, children and parents sit at a table together, says the Rev. Jimmie James, who coordinates the boys’ program for the Chief Seattle Council. But with the Scouts, the mothers play basketball and volleyball with their kids and lead activities related to Boy Scout values, including community, loyalty and helpfulness.
“For a moment, the mother has a chance to forget where she is,” says Willie Craig, a unit supervisor at the corrections center who gives up some of his best fishing time to come back to volunteer for the Boy Scout program. “It’s just her and the kids playing as if she were out in the community.”
Some of the mothers won’t be out for years, but others are in transition. And the Scouting programs serve a motivational purpose, as well: they lead the women to behave like good Scouts because only mothers who are infraction-free at the prison can take part.
“You better believe it,” says Craig.
Craig said the scout programs and events like last Sunday’s Mother’s Day celebration fit with the belief of Belinda D. Stewart, superintendent of the corrections center, that rewards lead to positive outcome. They also support her view that stronger family support increases the prisoner’s success in the community upon release.
“Their behavior changes dramatically,” Craig said. “Some of these mothers have no other way of seeing their children.”
One mother, whose boys want to become Scouts so they can visit her, said she knows she has to keep her record clean by walking away when she’s challenged by other inmates, which isn’t easy.
“I’m avoiding anything I can so I can have my kids in my life,” said Naomi Rogers, who will get out in 2007 for what she describes as her life of crime. “It’s really hard. You feel such emptiness.”
“Now she smiles”
At the Mother’s Day event, Connolley takes turns with Ian and Kira so their mom, Lori, can spend time with each of them alone.
Lori started using methamphetamines at 30 to keep up with two jobs and lose weight after a difficult divorce, and then damaged other people with forgery and identity theft to pay for it.
“It got the better of her, of course,” Connolley said.
But over the past few months, first Kira and then Ian have come to know their mom better.
“We just sit there and talk and talk about what’s going on in my life and what’s going on in hers,” Kira said. She’s sure the Scout programs have made a difference. “Usually when I went to see her, she wore a frown. Now she smiles.”
Kira’s grandparents are preparing bunk beds for Kira and Lori to share a room when her mother comes home. And Lori says she will not forget any of this experience, even the Girl Scout and Boy Scout mottos.
“I am blessed,” she said. “I took it for granted. I won’t ever lose sight of that again.”