Tuesday morning, Melody Hutchison sat with her three-month-old son Matthew. She hadn’t seen him since July 30. The baby cried and fussed. A social worker sat across from them with pen and paper, watching.
After a 26-hour bus ride from Terrace to see him, it was an emotional start to the visit.
“It was hard. He didn’t really know who I was. So he cried for like 40 minutes – he was freaked right out, and that’s hard.”
Matthew was born while Melody, 25, was in custody at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women. The baby was taken into foster care.
The B.C. Supreme Court has ruled it a violation of human rights for B.C. Corrections to routinely take away babies born to women in custody, and place the newborns in foster care. The court decision came after two inmates at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women took Corrections to court for closing the mother-baby unit at the prison in Maple Ridge, and won.
But so far there have been no babies at the rebuilt mother-baby unit.
Melody’s son was born at Ridge Meadows Hospital, and taken from her when he was a day old.
Traumatized, she rode back to the prison in a police car. She remembers a corrections officer going back to get his hat and wristband for her.
It was four days later before she got another one-hour visit with her son.
Melody watched another inmate who went through the same ordeal during the summer.
“She was brutally upset. She didn’t talk for three days.”
Melody’s reaction was anger.
“It’s unfair. It’s wrong. Just because I was a past addict … people change.”
The baby program was supposed to be reinstated, by order of the courts.
Melody, who served a four-month sentence for breaches of court orders, hoped to be approved for the program, especially given she was in open custody, which is minimum security.
“It’s a work camp. It’s not even jail. You’re doing baby courses, substance abuse management, relationship skills, counselling.”
She said there is no risk to the baby at the prison because there is 24-hour surveillance, family workers are involved and there is health care on site.
“Everything is right there where you need it,” she said.
Mo Korchinski, a Maple Ridge mother and former ACCW inmate who now has a degree in social work and is a peer mentor for former inmates, is a strong advocate for the mother-child unit. No prison program offers a greater success rate at rehabilitating offenders than the mother-baby program, she said.
“Of the moms who all participated, only one mom reoffended, and none of the babies wound up in foster care,” Korchinski said.
“They’re supported in jail, they’re supported in transition and they’re supported once they get into the community.”
ACCW approved Melody for the program, but the Ministry of Children and Family Services did not.
The ministry is not able to respond to questions about specific cases due to confidentiality laws.
However, Shawn Larabee of the ministry said the same principles would apply to child custody whether or not the mother is in prison.
“They are handled the same, irrespective of location.”
When Melody was released, she returned home to Terrace. But her son remains in foster care in Maple Ridge. She blames the ministry for creating this situation, where a new mother doesn’t get to see her son often. She has asked for her baby to be to transferred to Prince George or someplace closer than the more than 1,300 km distance to Maple Ridge.
“I’m not even from here. Just because I had my son here does not mean he should reside here,” she said.
Melody says she’s getting her life on track.
“I’m focusing on changing my life, for my son, and me.”
“Take responsibility and move on. That’s all you can do. It’s not going to happen at the snap of the fingers. It takes time, right, to build a life.”
She’s been at odds with the ministry over her drug treatment. She doesn’t believe a residential treatment facility will be good for her.
“It’s like a jail reunion,” she said.
“I’ve been out, and I’ve been clean. I work out, full-time job, new place, paying car payments … I do not need to go to detox and get a high-five every day and do a 12-step program. I know what I need for my sobriety.”
She is supposed to take urine tests to prove she’s not using drugs, and while she has been asking for them, she said the ministry has not provided her the opportunity. The tests are supposed to be administered weekly.
She has two other children who have been given up for adoption.
What’s the difference from before, ministry officials ask her.
“People change, people get older, and they move on. They don’t want to feel that pain that they went through before.”
On Tuesday she got to hold Matthew.
He’s a “super healthy baby,” she said.
“After a while, he was smiling, and laughing and cute.”
She’s determined to get him back.
“It means everything,” she said.
“That’s my son.”