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Ellen Rosenblum Honored for Work with Daughters of Imprisoned Mothers

December 6, 2013, Board news

Former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts (left) and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum (right) at the National Girls Scouts Fundraising Luncheon in September 2013. Both women were recipients of the 2013 Marie Lamfrom Women of Distinction Award.

We recently spoke to ABF Board Member and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum about her work with daughters of imprisoned mothers through the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program, for which she received the 2013 Marie Lamfrom Woman of Distinction Award at the National Girls Scouts Fundraising Luncheon on September 18, 2013. Former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts was also a 2013 honoree. The award is named for Marie Lamfrom, a Girl Scouts Troop Leader for over 35 years, and is meant to honor women who have improved the lives of children, especially those most vulnerable.

Rosenblum (right, front row) with Girl Scout leadership and Gold Award Recipients

The National Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program was established in 1992 as a partnership between the National Institute of Justice and the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland. The program “provides Girl Scout activities in a safe and supportive environment and focuses on re-establishing relationships and healthy decision-making skills” for thousands of girls nationally. Seventeen years ago, General Rosenblum brought Girl Scouts Beyond Bars to Oregon. On average, 50 girls participate in the local program each year, meeting twice a month with their mothers who reside at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, OR. In this interview, Rosenblum shared with us the history of her involvement with this unique program.

Tell us the story of how the Oregon council of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars was founded. 

Rosenblum with Karen Hill, Chief Executive Officer of the Girl Scouts of Oregon & Southwest Washington, at GirlFest

In 1997, I was a trial judge in the Oregon state court. I read about the program in a brochure and called our local Girl Scouts’ Executive Director at the time about bringing the program to Oregon. She jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with the courts, and we were soon meeting and strategizing.  My role was really as a catalyst – to connect the Girl Scouts with the Sheriff’s Office (who run the local jail) through my position on the court. Cooperation between the three groups – the courts, the Sheriff’s Office, and the Girl Scouts – was absolutely essential to the successful establishment of the program. Girl Scouts get things done – and they did an amazing job of putting the pieces together.  Everyone was excited and cooperative!

How did you become interested in a program for the children of incarcerated parents?

Throughout my lengthy career in the Oregon justice system, I have gained deep insight and empathy for the situation of children with incarcerated parents. In my early career as a criminal defense lawyer, I represented children in juvenile court and later presided as a trial judge over the juvenile court that deals with cases of abused and neglected children. From my days on the appellate court, I have seen what can happen to kids when cases are not handled properly at the trial court level. It was important to me to do more for my community outside of rulings on the bench. So, this was a community program that would help families move forward and break out of the cycles that seem to keep the same families rotating through the criminal and juvenile justice system.  Now, As Attorney General, I supervise the state’s child advocacy lawyers who protect Oregon children.  So, this is a program that continues to have great meaning to me in terms of how it fits into my leadership priorities.

How has the program grown and evolved since you began it in 1997?

At the time, we had a dilapidated women’s prison in Salem, so we had to be creative about where to hold the program until the new prison, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, opened. The program had its first meetings at a YWCA transitional housing site for women recently released from jail. It then moved to the local Inverness Jail in Portland and, finally, to Coffee Creek. Meetings now take place in the Coffee Creek cafeteria on alternating Saturday mornings. During the weeks that the girls do not visit, they meet separately to support each other in a more typical troop setting.   It is especially inspiring when some of the women who have been released from prison continue to be involved in the program as troop leaders and to build relationships with other Girl Scouts Beyond Bars daughters and mothers.

What role do you play in the program?

Rosenblum (right) with Girl Scout leadership and girl scouts at the GirlFest event

I formed the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Advisory Board to help meet the program needs and have served on it since its inception.  Most fun of all, I have attended troop meetings at Coffee Creek as a volunteer and observer. I participate in fundraising activities, such as a cookbook we put together and sold, the GirlFest event, and a Perkins Coie law firm fundraiser, for which Girl Scouts Beyond Bars was chosen as the priority charity for a year.  The Advisory Board, now chaired by Judge Adrienne Nelson, has expanded to include professionals outside of the legal community. One particularly moving fundraiser is a video called “The Circle is Round.” The Girl Scouts of Troop 60 produced the video themselves about their experiences in Girl Scouts Beyond Bars. You can view parts one and two here.

What are the most challenging aspects of the program?

The most complicated part of the program is getting the girls signed up for the program and transported to the prison. The mothers must be approved to participate in the program, and foster parents or guardians need to give consent. Transportation is also an issue; it is expensive, and the troop has to make the long drive to Wilsonville, where the facility is located. The program is statewide, so some girls travel a long distance to participate. Lastly, past substance abuse and other issues that the mothers may have create difficulties in re-establishing the relationship between mother and daughter. This is an opportunity for the girls and their moms to get to know one another in a safe setting – sometimes for the first time without the dangers and heartbreak associated with substance abuse and crime.

Why do you feel the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program is important?

These remarkable girls face extraordinary challenges. It is important, in particular, for daughters to have the chance to break the cycle of girls following their mothers to prison. The Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program presents this opportunity. Because of the challenges the girls face, it takes a great organization such as Girl Scouts to facilitate constructive contact with their parents. Additionally, the program addresses girls’ specific needs, especially in adolescence. It is difficult for kids to talk about their incarcerated parents. These are girls who share a common bond and are able to share their secret with one another. And, it gives the moms a chance to learn and demonstrate leadership skills.

ABF Research Professor John Hagan found that a child’s probability of graduating from college drops to 2% when their mother is imprisoned. How can research on incarceration, such as that of John Hagan and others at the ABF, help programs such as Girls Scouts Beyond Bars to affect change?

There are many parallels between what ABF research has revealed and the experiences of the girls who participate in this program. Girl Scouts Beyond Bars and programs like it need high quality empirical research to validate that these efforts help to break the cycle of incarceration. Appeals for funding must be based on the most compelling and recent evidence available in order to successfully garner funds in support of these important programs.  

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