With mothers in prison, the girls of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars make it through with small visits and cold comforts. (iStock)
Marian Harris is a professor of social work at the University of Washington Tacoma, a national and international child welfare researcher, and recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Research Award.

I met Jane in 2013 at a women’s prison in Washington state. She was 6, and while other girls her age may have been camping in the woods with their Girl Scout troops, Jane was camping overnight at the prison where her mother was incarcerated.

On the day we met, Jane was participating in Girls Scouts Beyond Bars, a program begun in Baltimore in 1992 as a pilot project between the Girl Scouts and the Institute of Justice. The idea was for girls to have formal visits with their incarcerated mothers, as well as a community of peers who shared their experiences and trained adults to help them deal with their challenges. For children with incarcerated parents, this kind of support is vitally important.

I asked Jane who she talked to when she missed her mother and thought about her in prison. Jane said, “I talk to John.” I asked her who John was: Was he her father, her grandfather, her uncle, her brother? “John is my dog,” Jane replied. I was deeply touched, and struck by the profound tragedy that had been inflicted on this innocent child: Not only was her mother incarcerated, unable to care for her, but she had no one to comfort her or help her remember her mother when she needed her most. All she had was John.

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars aims to give little girls like Jane support. And there are millions like her: The United States continues to have the highest number of incarcerated individuals in the world. People of color are disproportionately represented in the prison system. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, 580,000 are black men. Blacks and Hispanics comprise 64 percent of the U.S. prison population. Although men make up the largest portion of the prison population, the number of women in prison increased by more than 700 percent between 1980 and 2014. More than 60 percent of these women are mothers of children under 18. There are more than 2.7 million children of incarcerated parents in this country, and approximately half of those children are younger than 10.

The prison I was visiting when I met Jane, and many others like it, are part of America’s billion-dollar private prison industry. The privatization of prisons has been a bonanza for corporations and their investors, but a little-discussed side effect of locking up more than 120,000 women, many of them low-income black and Latina mothers, is the traumatic havoc on their children.

Parental incarceration is now acknowledged as an “adverse childhood experience” (ACE) by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and is different from other adverse childhood experiences because of the distinct amalgamation of trauma, shame and stigma that comes with having a parent in prison. Children of incarcerated parents are at risk of living in poverty while the prison industry continues to make billion-dollar profits. These children need the loving support, nurturing and care of family members to cope with the challenges they encounter during parental incarceration, and grandmothers are usually the primary caregivers when mothers are incarcerated. If there are no relatives to care for children, they enter the child welfare system and are placed in foster care or some other type of out-of-home care. These children face enormous obstacles to maintaining contact with their incarcerated parents. They may lack transportation to the prison, and are often shuffled from one placement to another. Caseworkers can fail to communicate with parents and prison staff about where the child is placed. All this can make it hard for parent and child to stay in contact and to be reunited when the parent is released.

Emotionally, seeing your parent go to prison is obviously extremely disruptive. Separation of a child from her mother due to incarceration is sometimes sudden, and the separation can hamper a child’s emotional, social, physical and cognitive development. And the children of incarcerated parents very often experience shame and stigma, despite being utterly innocent. Consequently, it is highly important for children to maintain regular contact with their parents during incarceration.

When I met Jane, I was at the prison to facilitate a Family Reunification Group for mothers who had custody of their children and planned to be reunified with them after their release. But that day, I was asked by a staff member from Girl Scouts Beyond Bars to stay at the prison and assist with a group for mothers and their daughters. Jane’s mother was incarcerated for a nonviolent drug offense and sentenced to three years. Since the advent of mandatory minimums in the 1970s, harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenses have skyrocketed, and are often more severe than sentences for violent crimes. Jane’s mother, like millions of others, had been incarcerated rather than rehabilitated, and had served 18 months.

I was able to meet Jane’s mother and see the two of them together. It was truly heartwarming to see Jane jump into her mom’s lap, hug her tightly and plant kisses all over her mom’s face. Jane had a big smile on her beautiful face when her mom hugged and also kissed her many times. Her mother said, “Jane, I love you with all my heart and miss you so much.” Jane’s mother started to cry. “Don’t cry mommy, I love you too,” her daughter comforted her.

The love between this mother and her child were readily apparent to me. Many thoughts raced through my mind when I picked up my briefcase and walked over to say goodbye to Jane and her mother. My most profound thought focused on the love and care I received throughout my childhood from my mother, who was always physically and emotionally present for me. Jane and many children like her have been robbed of this type of mothering because their moms are incarcerated.

Jane is now 10. That day, I told her that I also talk to an animal friend when I’m upset: my cat, Melanie. It was the truth, but my heart broke for her. Millions of us all across America are celebrating our moms on Mother’s Day. However, while we are celebrating, we should be mindful of how to support Jane and thousands of other children who can’t celebrate because their moms are in prison or jail.