Brittany K. Barnett (right), founder of Girls Embracing Mothers, Inc. with her mother, the inspiration for the organization.
By Froswa’ Booker-Drew
Contributor, Dallas/Fort Worth
According to recent data, there are 1.7 million children in this country who have a parent in prison, and more than 70% of whom are children of color. Related to this is the increasing number of mothers who are incarcerated, which has nearly doubled in the past 20 years. Because mothers are usually the custodial parent, their incarceration has more detrimental effects on their children. Research studies and programs have been created to address this issue, and one young woman is using her own mother’s incarceration as a way to give back. Meet Brittany K. Barnett, a law student at SMU Dedman School of Law originally from Bogata, Texas, who experienced her mother’s 8-year prison sentence at the age of 22. She shares, “Even as a young adult woman, I was greatly affected by my mother’s incarceration.”
Brittany founded Girls Embracing Mothers, Inc. (GEM), a Dallas, TX based nonprofit to empower young girls ages 7 through 17 whose mothers are currently incarcerated by providing a support system in a caring, inclusive, and learning environment. GEM is committed to inspiring young girls to succeed by instilling a sense of hope for the future and strengthening the mother-daughter relationship by lessening the impact of maternal separation due to incarceration. Brittany shares her inspiring story that led to the creation of GEM:
“My desire to start GEM stems from my experience of being the daughter of inmate # 1374671. This number was assigned to my mother by the Texas Department of Corrections in 2006 when she began serving an 8-year prison sentence. I was 22 years old. Even as a young adult woman, I was greatly affected by my mother’s incarceration. For example, it was devastating that she was absent during holidays and birthdays; that she could not be at the hospital when my little sister severely injured her arm; not seeing her in the audience as I sat on stage during my Masters degree ceremony. I disliked the fact that I could not call her everyday even if just for encouragement as I tested for the grueling CPA exam or to discuss with her my overwhelming first days of law school—just so I could hear her say “You can do it.”
Then were the visitations and seeing her decked in prison whites; only being able to hug her for a few seconds. I will never forget hearing her ask a prison guard could she use the restroom or the consistent sickening feeling within my stomach each time I had to leave her behind the barbed wire. Fortunately my family has a strong belief in God that was instilled in me at a young age. I am far from perfect; however, I prayed daily for God to give me strength and lead me in the right direction so that I would not fall victim to societal flaws. Spiritual growth has taught me I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13). By God’s grace, I managed to maintain an optimistic perspective on life and keep my priorities in line. I possess an immeasurable faith in God and giving up has never been an option.
Yet even with my faith, I still experienced a near breaking point. I will never forget my first visit to visit my mother in prison. Our first visit was not a contact visit but a “phone” visit because she had not been there 60 days. Being in that cold place was so uncomfortable. The word “privacy” is nonexistent. Some of the guards treat the inmate’s families as if they are in prison. My mom looked so out of place. I kept thinking to myself my mom is not a hard-core criminal, she doesn’t belong here. Yet I knew she had to pay for her previous actions. During that first visit we cried a lot. Then we laughed some to keep from crying even more. And we prayed for God to give us strength to get through this journey.
I remember sitting in the car after the visit watching the women in their white prison uniforms through the wire walking in straight lines to wherever they were going, all with their hands behind their backs looking straight ahead. I began crying uncontrollably, so hard my vision of the inmates was now nothing but white blurred images. I then did something I was always taught as a child to NOT do….question God. But here I was sitting in a brand new car I had purchased with income from my new job at one of the largest accounting firms nationwide. I had a Bachelor’s Degree and just obtained a Master’s Degree. Yet my mother was sitting in prison…this foreign place that I knew nothing of. No amount of college education on earth could prepare me for this time. I strongly believe God has a plan for us all. That everything happens for a reason. So I asked God why……to please tell me why this was happening to me and my family and to please tell me soon.
God’s timing is not our timing. I did not get my answer that day, that week, or that month even. Meanwhile, my little sister and I continued to faithfully visit our mother. Notwithstanding my own experiences, even more heartfelt were my observations of younger girls during visitation and their interactions with their mothers. Evidencing the strength of the mother-daughter bond was the way the young girls would gaze into their mothers’ eyes and hug them tightly. To them, the women they were visiting were much more than a 7-digit inmate number. These women were their mothers. And like myself, these young girls loved their mothers no matter what.
Several months after asking God to please reveal to me His reason behind me experiencing the incarceration of my mother, I watched Lisa Ling on Oprah discussing Troop 1500 – Girl Scouts Beyond Bars. This was a Girl Scout program for young girls with incarcerated mothers. They offered activities for the girls and group visitations for the girls and their mothers. I was so intrigued by the show. It was like God said to me “Now do you see? This is why I am testing you this way. To give you a testimony to share with others to help exhort them.”
The next day I called Girls Scouts in Dallas only to find out they didn’t offer the program. I researched organizations in Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and found none offering services similar to Troop 1500. At the time, DFW was the 2nd largest metropolitan location in Texas with a few state and federal women’s prisons in the area. I knew there must be hundreds of young girls in the area with a mother in prison. That’s when I got the idea of starting my own organization in the Dallas area that offered a program similar to Troop 1500 along with additional programs based on my own experiences, that could greatly benefit daughters of incarcerated mothers.
I now know the reason for me having to experience the incarceration of my mother and the blessings I have received of being able to further my education and network to build relationships with great people was without a doubt so that God could position me to establish Girls Embracing Mothers, Inc. (GEM).
Moreover, GEM will help sustain mother-daughter relationships by offering opportunities for visitation to lessen the impact of maternal separation due to imprisonment. GEM wants to educate young girls that the cycle, which often accompanies incarceration can be broken. After all, my mother and I are living proof.
My mother has since been released from prison. She has developed a willingness to be open and honest about every aspect of her life. Our mother-daughter bond is stronger than ever. Regardless of the trials we encountered, at the end of each day she is still my mother and I love her dearly. The transformation I have witnessed in her speaks magnitudes of her potential and inspires me to continue to strive to be the best I can be.
I want to be an advocate and maximize my effect of this pressing societal problem. One of the lessons I want to instill in the recipients of GEM is that in order for a GEM to brilliantly shine, it must go through heat, pressure and change. This process releases the glory of God. Stay encouraged. Echoing the words of a woman who serves as great inspiration to me, Oprah Winfrey, “I am seeking the fullest expression of myself as a human being on earth.” It is my prayer that GEM will touch the lives of young girls with mothers in prison in a way that will have a substantial impact on steering them toward successful life paths."
Brittany graduates from law school next month, and her proud mother will now be able to share in the moment. To learn more about Girls Embracing Mothers, visit the website at www.girlsembracingmothers.org.