Ore. prison program helps incarcerated moms bond with their daughters
Girls Scouts Beyond Bars is a unique program in dozens of women’s prisons, jails and juvenile-detention centers across the country
By Savannah Eadens
WILSONVILLE, Ore. — Ten-year-old Aubree Orren clutches her mom’s waist, cuddling into her at every opportunity.
Because for most of Aubree’s life, she couldn’t.
Brittany Endicott opens the scrapbook she sent to Aubree and her other two children two years ago.
“Hello my children… this is a book just for the three of you to get to know me more than you know me… I love you guys.”
Endicott, 34, made the scrapbook when she was incarcerated at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. The crafts project was part of Girls Scouts Beyond Bars, a unique program in dozens of women’s prisons, jails and juvenile-detention centers across the country.
Endicott used toothpaste to glue photos into the scrapbook, and she cut scraps of paper from old magazines and calendars, adorning the small book with butterflies, a symbol that represents her first-born son, Anthony, who died in 2005. On one page, she drew stick figures of the family at a beach. On another, she listed her favorite things: purple, turtles, camping and dancing.
Sitting at a picnic table in their favorite Keizer park during spring break, she asked her children: “Did you know all this about me when I was in prison?”
They didn’t. A year and a half after her release, they’re still getting to know her.
Over the past 20 years, the incarceration rate for women in Oregon has tripled, according to data from the Oregon Justice Resource Center. More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.
The Girl Scout program’s mission is to strengthen and preserve the family bonds that can break during a family member’s time in prison. Oregon and Southwest Washington’s Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program started in 1997 at Multnomah County’s Inverness jail; it moved to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in 2001.
“We believe strongly in second chances,” said Amy Botula, the program’s manager.
In 2014, Endicott took a plea deal in Clackamas County for her role in an armed robbery. The robbery led Michael Orren, her ex-husband and the father of her children, to a life sentence for aggravated murder.
Endicott received a seven-year prison sentence. Her children were all under two years old when she was convicted and sent to Coffee Creek.
For most of her time in prison, Endicott’s kids only knew their mother in the sterile confines of Coffee Creek’s gray-walled visitor room, where correctional officers kept a close watch and restricted physical contact. Once a week, Endicott’s grandmother and her childrens’ custodian drove from Keizer to Wilsonville with Aubree and her younger siblings, Madison and Michael.
“Getting incarcerated made me grow up,” Endicott said. “Prison sucks. Nobody should ever want to go. But I can say that seven and a half years at Coffee Creek did some justice. I’ve learned so much about myself. I never knew I had the ability to grow and become who I am today.”
Towards the end of her sentence, Endicott’s two daughters, Aubree and Madison, joined the Girl Scout troop affiliated with the prison program. This allowed them to see their mother twice a month outside the visitor room. During three-hour visits in a classroom, they earned Scout badges, did crafts and sold cookies to inmates while Endicott and other mothers acted as troop leaders. Endicott could hug her children, and they sat on her lap while she braided their hair.
In the company of other young girls who had a mother, grandmother, aunt or sister in prison, the troop ate lunches together – food brought in from the outside – and played games.
The Beyond Bars program allowed Endicott’s children to get to know their mother, and helped them understand her imprisonment. It also gave Endicott much-needed hope for the future, showing her she could be a mom and lead a normal, successful life after her sentence.
“We need visits, we need the outside world,” Endicott said. “Because our lives are at standstill while we’re in there and everyone else moves on with their lives.”
If Rhiannon Cates had known other girls with an incarcerated family member, she might not have felt so alone and alienated as a preteen when her grandmother was in prison.
Now Cates, 30, gets to serve that role for little girls.
A library archivist at Portland State University, Cates volunteers for Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, often driving to and from troop meetings at Coffee Creek.
Cates joined Girl Scouts at age 10, shortly after her grandmother, who had been her caregiver, went to prison.
She didn’t know about the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program then. It could’ve been a reprieve from the shame she felt, she said.
In Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, there’s “an unspoken energy,” Cates said, “because we’ve all been touched by that stigma.”
The criminal-justice system is confusing for children, she added. They often feel at fault.
She plays an important role in the lives of many of the girls in the Beyond Bars program, she said, because she truly understands what they’re going through. “Because my grandma, like, the dearest person in my life, became someone people didn’t want to bring up.”
Incarcerated women who want to join Girl Scouts Beyond Bars are screened through a partnership with the Department of Corrections. Their conviction, facility disciplinary history and relationship with their children’s caregiver are taken into consideration.
“We want to give them this new opportunity to see themselves in a new way, (to see) their connection to their child in a new way,” Botula said.
Endicott grew up in Oregon and Washington, raised by a single mother who worked long hours, so Endicott spent a lot of time alone.
Her mother struggled with addiction, and she sometimes dated men Endicott didn’t like.
Endicott acted out, hanging out in downtown Portland until 2 a.m., experimenting with drugs.
She was addicted to ecstasy by age 13 and using meth by 15, she said. She dropped out of high school and at 17 gave birth to her first child, a son, Anthony.
“I was young, and didn’t want to be a mom,” Endicott said. “I was a baby that had a baby and shouldn’t have, because I wasn’t done being a baby.”
She and Anthony were living with Endicott’s grandmother in 2012 when she let the 5-year-old boy go camping with his dad at Detroit Lake.
Anthony drowned in an accident. His body wasn’t found for a month.
Endicott couldn’t eat or sleep after Anthony’s death. Her husband at the time, the father of her three living children, was using and selling meth, she said. She fell deep into addiction.
“Before, I always used to try to justify why I was using,” Endicott said. “As an addict, you always come up with a reason.”
Endicott’s prison sentence was a “roller coaster,” she said. She felt suffocated, stuck. But with therapy, she learned to grieve the loss of her son and move forward in a constructive way.
After five years in prison, she decided to “shoot for the moon” and apply to the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program. She’d always wanted to be a Girl Scout, she said.
She was nervous, worried her kids wouldn’t be accepted.
Endicott knew how important it was to have a one-on-one relationship with her children. When Endicott was convicted, Aubree was just 17 months old, and the twins were 7 months.
She’d been somewhat lucky; her grandmother brought the children to visit often when they were babies.
“I wouldn’t have the relationship I have with my children now if it wasn’t for her consistency,” Endicott said.
There are a lot of women at Coffee Creek who don’t get to see their children because of complicated relationships with a caregiver or because their children are in foster care. And some mothers are ashamed to let their children see them incarcerated, Endicott said.
“Everyone’s story of course is unique, but in some ways, Brittany, her daughters and the extended family are really emblematic of how (Girl Scouts Beyond Bars) can be of service,” Botula said. “We were just one more strong thread in the safety net that the family was already creating to keep everybody together through Britney’s incarceration.”
When Aubree and Madison joined Girls Scouts, they got to have lunch with their mom for the first time in five years.
With valuable one-on-one time, Endicott learned Aubree was the artistic tomboy and Maddie the bossy diva.
“I feel like Girl Scouts Beyond Bars not only helps us maintain a relationship with our children, but it also helps the children to see and be a part of a program where other little girls are also impacted by incarceration,” Endicott said. “They’re not alienated. They’re in a room where they can all relate.”
When COVID hit in 2020, the program went virtual. The girls and their troop leaders were mailed bonding projects to do together over Zoom, like making slime, asking each other questions from a jar, and the scrapbook.
“If it wasn’t for Girl Scouts I would’ve never done anything like that,” Endicott said of the activities.
With COVID restrictions finally lifted, Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is recruiting families anew and conducting interviews with mothers in custody. Botula said she expects the program to be back in Coffee Creek by June.
On Sept. 8, 2021, Endicott was released from prison. Waiting for her in the parking lot, the children came running, and Endicott fell to her knees.
But re-entering the world wasn’t easy. For so long, she’d made no decisions. Getting out meant relearning how to live and be responsible. It was anxiety-inducing.
She moved into her grandmother’s home, sharing a bed with her kids, holding them close through the night.
On one of the scrapbook pages, she’d written to her children about her dream of becoming a hairdresser. After her release, Endicott completed beauty school and is now finishing another cosmetology license. Her goal is to start her own salon by 2025.
Meantime, she practices on the kids: dying Maddie’s hair blue and giving Michael blonde highlights.
Endicott immediately stepped right into a full-time mother role, but it took some time to earn her children’s trust.
“You were in prison my whole life,” they’d sometimes say, in defiance of her authority.
Endicott took it with humility. “You’re right,” she’d say. “If I could go back, I wouldn’t have done it.”
The resentment and wariness soon waned.
“I think they realized I’m here to stay, they’re not gonna lose me,” Endicott said. “I can understand that fear.”
Endicott is honest with her children; she doesn’t refrain from answering their questions about her incarceration. They’d already Googled her case and learned some of the details.
“They tell me they love me every five minutes, every time they see me,” Endicott said.
They’re not necessarily making up for lost time, Aubree said, “just saying it because she’s here now.”