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Babies need their mothers, even when mom’s in jail

Last September, A.S., a Somali-born Norwegian woman, was arrested in Toronto. She was wanted in Norway for child abduction and forgery, having fled the country with a child and unborn baby as part of a custody dispute.

A.S. alleges her partner was abusive, so she forged his signature on a document relinquishing parental authority and escaped to Canada out of fear for her safety and that of the children.

A.S. (her name is being withheld because children in child-protection cases cannot be identified) gave birth on Dec. 30 at the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton, Ont. Within hours of the birth, the baby was taken into the custody of the Children's Aid Society and placed with a foster family. The three-year-old sibling had already been apprehended.

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Regardless of where the truth lies in the underlying custody dispute, the treatment of A.S. is barbaric and underscores Canada's regressive prison policies, particularly when it comes to mothers with young children. This fact was noted late last week when a judge granted bail to A.S., saying there is clear evidence that "there are very adverse effects on young children of separation from their parent." A.S. will now live in a shelter and see her children regularly under the supervision of a Children's Aid worker until the extradition case is resolved.

There are about 600 women in federal prisons and roughly 6,000 others in provincial correctional facilities. About two-thirds of them have children, and many have young children. But Canada has a dearth of mother-child units, especially in provincial-territorial facilities, where they are most needed because women are younger and serve shorter sentences. This is a travesty.

In an affidavit filed in court as part of A.S.'s bail hearing, Dr. Lisa Graves, chair of the maternity and newborn care committee of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, noted that there are "well-documented medical, psychological and social harms caused to new mothers and their children when separated at or near birth due to incarceration."

Forced separation poses a direct health risk to children, in large part because they are denied breastfeeding. Interfering with a child's attachment to their mother also puts them at risk of developmental deficits and poorer health and social outcomes. That's why most Western countries allow young children to live with their moms in prison, usually to the age of four.

The Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education has published excellent guidelines on the need to implement mother-child units in all correctional facilities, but they have not been heeded broadly. Correctional Service Canada, to its credit, has made great strides in the last couple of years, adding mother-child units in all six women's prisons. There are currently four women participating in the residential component of the mother-child program. There have been 28 women who had babies with them in prison at some point since 2008. Before that, the policy was fairly informal, until there was an outcry when Lisa Whitford, who was convicted of manslaughter for shooting her husband to death, was allowed to keep her baby behind bars.

But only one provincial facility has a decent program, and it was saved only by a landmark 2013 B.C. Supreme Court ruling. Justice Carol Ross found that closing the mother-child program of the Alouette Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge, B.C., (which had operated successfully since 1973) was discriminatory and a violation of constitutional rights.

She ruled that corrections officials cannot arbitrarily ignore the best interests of prisoners' children and underscored that a disproportionate number of inmates – about 35 per cent – are aboriginal. As Maclean's noted, prisons are, in many ways, the new residential schools. Everything needs to be done to break the vicious cycle of family breakdown in indigenous communities, and mother-child units in prisons are a small part of the solution.

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More broadly, though, there needs to be a new way of thinking – a paradigm shift, if you will – that accepts that it is a baby's constitutional right to remain with a mother, with few exceptions. Committing a crime – or merely being charged with one, like A.S. – does not make you a bad mom.

Allowing mothers to be mothers is one of the best ways to improve their health and that of their babies. It lowers the risk of unhealthy behaviours such as drug use, and of recidivism.

Prison should be about rehabilitation, not punishment. And, above all, we should not be tolerating policies that punish and harm babies.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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