Despite a successful court victory ordering Alouette Correctional Centre for Women to allow inmates to keep their babies while incarcerated, two newborns were taken from their mothers over the summer.
The Maple Ridge prison re-opened a mother-child unit last summer, after it had been shut down for six years.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton toured the facility in June 2014, when the program reopened following a court case won by former inmates the previous December.
The new mothers were to get prenatal education, participate in a parenting program and receive other supports.
However, in a letter dated Aug. 19, Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin wrote to Anton, noting that, “Two babies recently born to indigenous women incarcerated at ACCW were apprehended by the Ministry of Children and Family, and separated from their mothers within hours of their birth at [Ridge Meadows] Hospital.
“Tragically, these babies have irrevocably lost the opportunity to breastfeed and establish vital maternal-infant bonding, which research has demonstrated benefits infant development and adulthood health, and reduces recidivism for their mothers,” said her letter.
Supreme Court Justice Carol Ross ruled in December 2013 that the government’s decision to shut down the program was unconstitutional, and that mothers and babies rights were violated by the government’s decision to “arbitrarily end the program in 2008.”
Two former inmates, Amanda Inglis and Patricia Block, sued the province to have the program reinstated.
Mo Korchinski, a Maple Ridge mother and former inmate, has been a strong advocate for the program and is among those asking why the babies were taken from their mothers this summer.
She now has a bachelors degree in social work and works with former inmates as a project coordinator with UBC’s Unlocking the Gates peer mentor program.
Korchinski worked with both of the mothers in the court case and said they were “devastated” when their children were taken from them at birth, and put into the foster system.
Both women have since been released – they were not serving long sentences. While their children remain in foster care in Maple Ridge, the women have returned to their homes in the Okanagan and in Northern B.C.
“There was no immediate danger to those children,” said Korchinski, noting that inmates are on camera, and there is a strict rule that only mothers have access to the babies.
Korchinski said women who are released from prison generally do not reoffend when they are new mothers.
“Having that purpose and hope when you’re released makes all the difference if someone is going to turn their life around.”
The women’s prison, on Alouette Road near 249th Street, opened in 2004, and previously housed male inmates.
The following year it began the infant program, allowing 12 mothers to live with their children at the prison.
Corrections stopped the program in 2008, citing an increase in prison population, and unsafe conditions for the babies. It said the mothers used marijuana, got into fights, and left their babies unsupervised.
However, a doctor and a therapist who both worked at the prison testified that the program was beneficial to mothers and their babies, and had a positive impact on the general prison population.
In the six years the program was closed, 23 incarcerated women who gave birth at the prison had their babies placed in foster care, until courts ruled the program should be reinstated.
Dr. Martin’s letter also asked that the B.C. Ministry of Justice endorse the document “Guidelines for Implementation of Mother-Child Units in Canadian Correctional Facilities,” which was developed after the court ruling in 2013.
The guidelines are designed to “promote stability and continuity for mother-child health and bonding to build strong parental relationships in and beyond the correctional facility,” Martin wrote.
“Throughout the world, incarcerated women tend to be young and of childbearing age, often lacking financial resources and poorly educated, and therefore babies born to incarcerated women must be specifically included within the Families first of B.C. policy,” she said.
The guidelines planning committee members included Brenda Tole, a retired warden of ACCW, and Korchinski.
Anton said in a statement that the ministry cannot comment on specific cases due to privacy laws, but that each decision about participation in the program is made on a case-by-case basis.
“B.C. 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, B.C. Corrections waits for MCFD’s independent decision to be made prior to finalizing the application.”