The B.C. government will not appeal a court ruling that forced the province to reinstate a program allowing mothers to care for their newborn babies while serving time in a Maple Ridge prison.
B.C. Corrections confirmed staff are currently developing a new program for the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women to meet a deadline set by Supreme Court Justice Carol Ross, who ruled the government’s decision to shut down the program was unconstitutional.
The December court ruling held that mothers’ and babies’ rights were violated by the government’s decision to “arbitrarily” end the program in 2008, resulting in infants being separated from their moms during a vital formative period.
Justice Ross gave the province six months to reinstate the program, which means a new approach must be in place by June.
“Over the coming months, B.C. Corrections will determine how best to meet the court’s direction. Children’s safety is paramount and it’s important that we take a thoughtful approach,” said Cindy Rose, with B.C. Corrections.
The government’s decision to forgo an appeal is being welcomed by groups who work with incarcerated women, including the law firm that represented Amanda Inglis and Patricia Block, two former inmates who sued the province in a bid to reinstate the program.
Officials have decided to build the program instead of arguing against it, and that’s a positive development, said Geoff Cowper, with Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP.
“I’m glad it’s taking place rather than going through a lengthy period of appeal. It was an important constitutional question, so it could have been years.”
The mother-baby program began at the provincial prison, on Alouette Road off 249th Street, not long after it opened in April 2004. The four-year experiment saw 12 mothers live with their children inside the prison fences.
Of the 12, three mother-baby pairs were aboriginal.
B.C. Corrections ended the program in 2008, citing an increase in prison population and the safety of infants for its demise. Since then, inmates who have given birth have had their babies placed in foster care or with relatives.
The plaintiffs argued the closure deprived mothers and babies of the opportunity to bond, breastfeed, and develop close familial attachments, despite the fact that mothers wished to, and were deemed to be able to care for their children.
According to B.C. Corrections, the program was terminated because the safety of the babies was jeopardized.
One of the mothers was caught using marijuana, others got into fights, and some left their babies unsupervised.
However, a doctor and therapist, who both worked at the prison, testified that the program was beneficial to mothers, babies, and had a positive impact on the entire prison, as well as other inmates.
Mo Korchinski, a Maple Ridge mom and former inmate, was incarcerated at Alouette while the program was running and credits it for inspiring her to reconnect with her own children, who she hadn’t seen for 11 years. The babies, she adds, transformed the atmosphere at Alouette.
“You know what it’s like when you bring a baby into a room,” said Korchinski.
Now reconnected with her family, Korchinski is completing a bachelor’s degree in social work and works with former inmates as a project coordinator with the University of British Columbia’s Unlocking the Gates peer mentor program.
Korchinski says since the Alouette program shut down in 2008, 23 incarcerated mothers have given birth. All 23 babies ended up in foster care.
Their futures are bleak as 60 per cent of children with an incarcerated parent become involved in crime.
“It’s possible 23 children could end up in the same place,” said Korchinski, who is currently helping one mother, released from Alouette a few weeks ago, get her child back.
Korchinski is already in contact with prison staff and hopes they reach out to the wider community.
“Alouette Correctional Centre is part of Maple Ridge and it’s time we embraced the women there and make them part of the community.”
Meanwhile, B.C. Corrections is researching similar programs in other jurisdictions to craft one that’s appropriate for Alouette.
In the meantime, the prison’s current supports for mothers and babies will remain in place. They include steering expectant mothers towards community-based sentences, allowing mothers to have as much contact with their babies as possible, and enhanced visitation plans that could include daily visits.