Mother-child prison program investigated


News) Thursday, 07 February 2008, 20:49 PST


By Gerry Bellett  The Vancouver Sun    


Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day wants the Correctional Service of Canada to review its Mother-Child program to ensure the baby of a Prince George woman will be given the highest care while being brought up in prison after her mother was sentenced to four years in jail.

Lisa Whitford, 35, was sentenced Wednesday after pleading guilty to shooting her common-law spouse Anthony Cartledge, 49, with a shotgun in the summer of 2006 in their home outside Prince George.

She has an 11-month old girl who will go into custody with her. Her sentence was for six years but she was given two years credit for time spent in custody. Whitford has a long criminal record and was arrested after the shooting but gave birth to Jordyn in March, 2007, while in detention awaiting trial. At sentencing B.C. Supreme Court Justice Glen Parrett said the baby should be allowed to stay with Whitford in a special unit for mothers and children at the Fraser Valley Institution, a federal prison for women.

On Thursday, Day asked Keith Coulter, Correctional Service of Canada commissioner, to review the prison program as the “best interests of the child are the overarching priority in all such cases. The safety and best interests of the child must be the most important factors taken into consideration in all decisions,” Day said.

The minister said he was concerned with the impact on the child of being brought up in a federal prison. While other mothers have been allowed to keep their babies in federal prison it was not that common, said John Brent, a spokesman for Day’s office. “It’s not the first time it has happened but it is more usual in provincial institutions (where sentences don’t exceed two years),” he said.

Canada allows children to be raised in federal prisons until they reach their fourth birthday, but the United States doesn’t allow any children in federal prisons. Pregnant women entering any of the 114 federal prisons in the United States are given the choice of having an abortion or giving the child up for adoption or to foster parents, said Federal Bureau of Prisons official Felicia Ponce. “If they elect to carry the child to term they are not allowed to keep the child once it’s been born,” said Ponce.

“At that stage they have to work with their family or social services so the child can go up for adoption or into foster care,” she said. Under the Mother-Child program in Canada a mother is responsible for the full-time care of her child but will have access to pre-and-post natal services from public health authorities including such things as counselling, nutrition and breastfeeding advice. But on reaching its fourth birthday the child must leave the institution. After that the child can participate in a part-time program living with its mother at weekends and during summer vacation and holidays until it reaches the age of 12. At that age the child can participate in the private family visit program.

Professor Linda Siegel of UBC’s department of Educational and Counselling Psychology said she would have some concern about the baby’s development if it were not mixing with other children by the age of three. “Not much interaction goes on before the age of two and half or three but after that it becomes important,” said Siegel. But even more important was constant care by its mother. “Bringing up a child up in prison will obviously not provide optimal conditions and it sounds grim, but if the mother is there and there’s a consistency of care, that would be the best thing, rather than have it looked after by a succession of other people,” she said. “I wonder what kind of toys and books and stimulation will be available? The mother will certainly need a lot of help,” said Siegel. She said she was not aware of any studies that have been done on children brought up in such surroundings. “It would certainly be an interesting topic,” she said.