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Badge of Honor : They're Scouts, complete with uniforms and badges, yet they are like no others. The Beyond Bars troops take outings past metal detectors and barbed wire to visit their mothers in prison--and learn how not to make the same mistakes.

GIRL TROUBLE: AMERICA'S OVERLOOKED CRIME PROBLEM. Third in an Occasional Series.

May 31, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before they could recite the Girl Scout promise, before they could salute the flag, before they could dig into a box of thin mint cookies, the members of Troop 2000 lined up to pass through a metal detector. They presented their birth certificates and signed their names. This last activity posed a special challenge for Camille, a 5-year-old Daisy Scout, who has not yet learned to write.

But Girl Scouts are known for perseverance. A troop leader guided Camille's hand while the child scrawled a giant C. Troop 2000 wasn't about to let a little thing like prison bureaucracy stand in the way of its monthly meeting with mothers who are incarcerated at the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security jail and treatment program in Norco.

Racing up the steps two at a time, 10-year-old Faylyn embraced her mother, Michelle, jailed for drug possession and sales. While the pair squeezed each other tight, Faylyn bubbled over with the news of the toy poodle she is caring for at her grandparents' home in San Bernardino. They stood out in the sunshine, Michelle in prison denims, Faylyn in the bright aqua T-shirt her troop chose as a uniform.

"This is great," Faylyn said. "I get to see my mother here every month. We talk, we color, we do crafts." Michelle, heavily made up for her daughter's visit, dabbed at her eyes.

The meeting began on the patio of what must be one of the only penal institutions where bougainvillea blooms abundantly, and in primly trimmed arrangements. That is not the only surprising decorative feature of a prison built nearly 70 years ago as a luxury retreat.

Armed guards and the menacing, double-wire fence that encircles the property are reminders of the prison's current purpose. So if at first glance, as Michelle conceded, Norco may be a disconcertingly beautiful jail, "It's still jail."

The monthly Scout meetings are more focused than visiting sessions, which can be stilted and tense, Michelle observed. "In Girl Scouts, we've talked a lot about my old behavior, and why we dislike it," she said.

With members from as far as West Los Angeles and Riverside, Troop 2000 is part of a small but burgeoning effort to intercede in a continuum of crime that too often sees children of incarcerated moms and dads follow in their parents' footsteps. The Norco unit represents the first venture into California by the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, a novel partnership between law enforcement and the country's largest and oldest voluntary service program for girls. Four years into its existence, Girl Scouts Beyond Bars--an imposing name that might have leaped right off a tabloid headline, its founders agree--is in place in 13 states and 18 correctional institutes.

In-prison Scouting sessions reflect a steady wave of social awareness measures that include troops for homeless girls, pregnant teens, the daughters of migrant workers and girls in foster care. Girls Inc., another large organization that was formerly known as the Girls Clubs of America, also has branched into juvenile justice intervention.

With just 2,000 girls per year, the Beyond Bars units remain a tiny fraction of the Girl Scouts' 3.3 million membership. But criminal science researcher Anna Laszlo, of Washington, D.C., and Buffalo, N.Y., said the drop-in-the-bucket argument does not detract from the benefits of almost any effort to work with children of incarcerated parents.

"My general sense is anything to save one child is worth it," Laszlo said. No data exists on a mother-daughter crime connection, but national figures show that children of incarcerated parents are six times as likely to end up in the juvenile justice system as children whose parents have never been in jail. Bureau of Justice Statistics studies further indicate that 70% to 80% of women in jail are mothers, most often of young children.

The intergenerational link is not dwelt on at Girl Scouts Beyond Bars. But mothers who are in the system are only too aware of the risks and temptations that put them there. On the sunny patio at Norco, a flag-and-pledge ceremony begins each meeting of Troop 2000. Mothers and daughters stand in a circle, holding hands.

"I have five kids," said Charlene, 26, as she gripped the hand of her 7-year-old daughter, Sherica. Charlene is doing time for crack possession. "I worry," she said. "I worry about them all the time."

"Crime is just so easy," agreed Ellen, 38, who was convicted of petty theft in conjunction with her heroin addiction, and whose three children include 5-year-old Camille. "It's way too easy."

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