Program in Tulsa Fosters Female Prisoners' Mother-Child Relationships

Article excerpt

Sheila Harbert is in the business of making sure the children of incarcerated women don't carry their parents' shame and poor behavior with them as they grow up.

Doing that often means driving a bus into neighborhoods where prostitutes stand on the corners, drug deals are going down on porches and gang members are gathering in front yards. But Harbert, who is director of the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program in Tulsa, keeps driving, and no one stops her. She's picking up the children of incarcerated women and taking them to visit their mothers in prison. Surrounding that visit are services for both mother and child that help them learn how to function in life without drugs.

"In prison, a mom is always waiting," Harbert said. "She waits to see her case manager, waits in line to eat, waits there doing her time. I tell moms, 'Your child is not waiting like you. Life is still moving on for that child.' I'm taking that message into the prison. They're not going to sit there in prison and forget about what's going on outside. I bring the inside to the outside. That child is suffering because of their mistakes. But we are also here to help them."

Harbert's efforts have received a renewed focus recently after a summit of statewide leaders met to discuss Oklahoma's rate for incarcerating women, the highest in the nation. Children have often been lost in the struggle to help women who are sentenced to prison for nonviolent crimes, Harbert said, but for something that was caused by a drug abuse problem.

Each year, Harbert and her staff transport more than 500 children to prisons across the state to visit their mothers. It's a powerful incentive for the women to learn the skills and behaviors they'll need to be successful once they get out, she said. Even though the program is operated through the Girl Scouts, boys are part of the program too. Hers also is the only Girl Scout program in the country with a focus on helping female prisoners as they re-enter society.

Children are smarter than people give them credit for, Harbert said, because despite what a caregiver may be telling them, they know if their mother has gone to prison. So while the mothers are receiving training on their own, the children are being prepared for life after their mother is released.

"The children need help when their mom gets home so they're not taken off guard," she said. "They know the signs to look for, and they're connected to us for help."

Harbert's program receives part of its funding from the George Kaiser Family Foundation of Tulsa, which is investing in the problem of incarcerated women on several fronts. …