Two aboriginal inmates at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women had their babies apprehended hours after they gave birth this past summer.
Prison advocates are decrying those apprehensions, saying they took place even though the Maple Ridge centre has a newly renovated mother-child facility and despite a 2013 B.C. Supreme Court decision. That ruling found that the government acted unconstitutionally when it cancelled a mother-baby program at the correctional centre in 2008, and gave the province six months to restore the program.
"It is inhumane," prison advocate Mo Korchinski said on Monday, saying the women hoped, up until they gave birth, that they might benefit from the court's decision.
"Because they knew there was a mother-baby unit, they expected they would be able to have their babies with them," she said, adding the unit appears to be operating only on paper.
B.C. Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton was not available for an interview, but her office sent an e-mailed statement attributed to her.
"The Mother-Child Program at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women (ACCW) has been open with dedicated space available since June 2014, however there are no applicants or participants at this time," the statement said.
"While I cannot discuss specific cases due to privacy laws, each decision about participation in the program is made on a case-by-case basis. BC Corrections looks at things such as each woman's risk assessment at ACCW, history of offences and any court orders prohibiting contact with children. Child protection decisions are made by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) and are approached the same way whether the mother is incarcerated or a member of the general community. If a woman has applied to the Mother-Child Program and MCFD has child protection concerns, BC Corrections waits for MCFD's independent decision to be made prior to finalizing the application."
Advocacy groups, meanwhile, say the two recent apprehensions are due to the government's failure to adopt new guidelines for mother-baby programs and that other ministries are following the lead of the Ministry of Justice.
"Two babies recently born to indigenous women incarcerated at ACCW were apprehended by the [Ministry of Children and Family Development] and separated from their mothers within hours of their birth at Maple Ridge hospital," Ruth Martin, a University of British Columbia researcher and former doctor at ACWW, said last month in a letter to Ms. Anton.
"The guidelines were not endorsed and therefore were not available to support and advise the social workers (and, the correctional and health workers) working with these babies and mothers. Tragically, these babies have irrevocably lost the opportunity to breastfeed and to establish vital maternal-infant bonding."
ACCW opened in 2004 and introduced a mother-baby program the following year. The province cancelled the program in 2008. Two former inmates filed a lawsuit the same year.
In December, 2013, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Carol Ross found the provincial government violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs by cancelling the program and, with it, prisoners' chances of serving time with their children.
Since then, advocacy groups – with input from the provincial government – have come up with recommended national guidelines for mother-child programs. Those guidelines, released Friday, cover issues ranging from required medical care for mothers and babies, to partnerships with health and community groups.
Brenda Tole, a retired warden who worked at ACCW while the program was in place, said she never saw an incident that threatened a child's safety but saw many benefits, including improved bonding between mother and child and better morale among prisoners.
According to the 2013 court decision, B.C. has had mother-child programs for women serving provincial sentences from 1973 to 2008, with more than 100 infants and their mothers taking part.