VANCOUVER – Patricia Block choked up as she told B.C. Supreme Court how she placed her infant daughter in the car seat of a foster mother, handed over a bottle of breast milk and kissed the girl goodbye as the baby was taken away from her before she returned to the prison where she was incarcerated.
Block and one other former inmate have launched a constitutional challenge, saying the end of a provincial program that would have allowed her baby to stay with her in the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge discriminated against her.
But she faced questioning from Crown lawyers Thursday who suggested a provincial jail is no place for an infant and noted that Block was also rejected by a federal institution to have her baby with her.
Block, 35, was about three-months pregnant when she entered Alouette in September 2008 after being arrested for possession for the purpose of trafficking. By then, the program that allowed babies to stay with their mothers in jail was no longer available.
Block wanted to keep her baby with her, so she applied to serve her two-year sentence at Fraser Valley Institution, a federal facility, where she might be eligible for a similar mother-baby program there. Block was transferred in November 2008, but her application to the federal mother-baby program was rejected.
She gave birth to a daughter, Amber, in March 2009 at an Abbotsford hospital, where Amber was taken away from her.
“It was while you were at FVI that you were told you wouldn’t keep your baby there?” Crown counsel Tyna Mason asked Block during cross-examination. “Your child was taken from you while you were at hospital in federal custody?”
Block answered yes to both questions, prompting Mason to ask: “Yet you filed a claim against the province, is that correct?”
According to court documents, Alouette’s mother-baby program was cancelled in 2008 because of safety risks. The Crown’s statement of defence says babies were exposed to aggressive behaviour and contraband.
Block admitted inmates occasionally yelled or swore at the facility, but for the most part, “things were pretty calm.”
“It’s not much different than any other environment,” she said. “There’s foul language everywhere.”
During her direct testimony, Block relived the moments that lead to her separation with Amber, who is now four years old. Block had found out a week before her due date that she had not been accepted into the mother-baby program at Fraser Valley Institution.
“I just cried the whole time,” she said, tearing up.
She said she barely slept during the two days post-delivery, hoping to savour every minute she could with Amber until a social worker and a foster mother came to take her away.
“The foster mom came in with a car seat,” she said, her voice heavy with emotion. “I had milk in the fridge for her, I’d been pumping so she could take it with her. I got her dressed, put her in the car seat. I gave her a kiss.”
Block said after she was taken back to Fraser Valley Institution, Amber visited regularly. Block was also able to send her breast milk, something advocates for the Mother-Baby Program say is crucial to an infant’s healthy development. Several months later, Block was released on parole and was reunited with Amber.
Block, who now lives in Penticton with her children and husband, had been imprisoned in Alouette twice prior to her sentence in 2008. In both previous circumstances, the Mother-Baby Program was still in place.
While Block did not have a child with her then, she testified she resided with mother-baby pairs sometimes and was only allowed to do so after a screening process that appeared to be based on personality and criminal history.
“I don’t know what the screening was, but from what I noticed living in the unit, a lot of the personalities were similar — non-aggressive people, quiet people,” she said.
Upon cross-examination, Block admitted that when she was at Alouette in 2007, she was charged for possessing contraband. She said she went through “a rebellion” at the time, and was also charged for possessing a set of handcuff keys.
Former recreational therapist Alison Granger-Brown testified Thursday, saying allowing infants and their mothers to stay together at Alouette gave all prisoners a sense of hope and pride.
Granger-Brown, who was in charge of making sure inmates developed a healthy lifestyle, told the court that organizing birthday parties and christenings for the babies, teaching incarcerated mothers how to play with their children, and allowing inmates to run outside or plant herbs created a positive environment.
“It was something joyful, it was something hopeful, it was something about helping women to think about the future that was different,” she said. “[The mothers] sort of lightly grew in stature, they just had pride.”
Granger-Brown said even though some inmates found it emotionally hard to be around the babies, the women were always careful about their behaviour around the infants. She said inmates often confided in her and she never witnessed anything of concern at Alouette.
During cross-examination, Crown lawyer Heidi Hughes suggested that confrontations could have occurred without Granger-Brown’s knowledge.
“I suggest that the inmates didn’t always confide in you, and that there were circumstances of stress and conflict that weren’t healthy for babies of which you weren’t advised,” she said.
Hughes noted a situation that was recorded in a prison log, in which two inmates had an argument over the use of a room in the facility.
Granger-Brown admitted that she hadn’t known about this specific incident, but that she wouldn’t consider it an altercation.
“I wouldn’t call it a fight, but a loud conversation,” she said.