Canada’s justice system still fails mothers and children

For too long violence against women and the confinement of mothers have gone uncontested and it is children who suffer

Samantha-SarraVANCOUVER, BC, Mar 7, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Ivonne Hernandez has a family court appearance scheduled for March 8th, International Women’s day, a stark reminder of the ways in which incarceration and immigration systems in Canada can silence women, and by default, their children.

The Mexican mother who lived in Montreal fled a violent husband, but instead of finding protection, she found re-victimization with the removal of her child and threat of deportation. Hernandez’ cried out for her baby as they arrested her in front of him. The same heart wrenching cry was heard when the screams of Julie Bilotta were ignored in 2012 when she was forced to give birth on the floor of an Ottawa jail cell.

South of the border, Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot at her abusive estranged ex-husband and was serving a 20 year sentence as a result. When a judge ordered she receive a new trial, many breathed a sigh of relief, noting the injustice of a black women who has been abused being sentenced to prison for 20 years for an act of self-defence.

But now the States attorney in Florida is seeking to put Marissa in jail for 60 years, a sentence that would not only be a slap in the face to survivors of violence, demonstrating a system which is supposed to keep them safe but is, instead, further oppresses them. It would also be devastating for her children.

The majority of women in Canadian prisons are mothers; the majority of them are also survivors of physical and sexual abuse. They are disproportionately women of colour and disproportionately lower income women. But we do not condemn the budget cuts to social services that mothers need to raise their families or the rampant violence against women which is too often silenced or ignored. Instead we criminalize the most vulnerable and in turn, sentence innocent children to underserved hardship.

There is also a reprehensible over-representation of Aboriginal people behind bars. This is the legacy of stealing children from mothers. The unjust confinement of First Nations people has been happening for generations, on reservations, in residential schools and in prisons. Our government will allow this mass incarceration of First Nations people, but it will not give us a National Inquiry into all the missing and murdered women.

This year on International women’s day there will be another name on that list: Loretta Saunders, the 26-year-old Inuk pregnant Masters student who was doing her thesis on missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada and whose body was found off a New Brunswick highway. Another mother and child lost to injustice.

It is a vicious cycle I am all too familiar with. In my early teens I was molested and later beaten and raped in my relationships. This left me often suicidal and unable to cope and in turn, having run-ins with the law.

I do not excuse my actions or the actions of any mothers behind bars, but neither do I excuse the actions of all those who perpetrated violence against those women. Nor do I excuse the systemic and societal failures which result in the imprisonment of abuse survivors.

As outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have the right not be separated from their parents and we need to dramatically shift the way our criminal justice system works so that the best interests of the child are always paramount. For too long violence against women and the confinement of mothers have gone uncontested and as a result, children are the ones who serve the most severe sentences.

Samantha Sarra is a co-principal investigator on Bonding through Bars, an international research roundtable on incarcerated mothers and their children at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced studies at UBC. She was also the writer in residence at the Family Medicine Forum prison health sessions and the Beyond the Bars conference at UBC.

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0 Responses to "Canada’s justice system still fails mothers and children"

  1. Opinionated Old Bastage   March 9, 2014 at 8:22 am

    Ms Sarra, just because it is International Women’s Day, does not mean that it is International Suspension of Reality Day. The arguments that you put forward as the basis for the systemic abuse and debasement of women in the justice system. are so flimsy and gratuitous as to be laughable.

    Let’s just start with Ivonne Hernadez. How does the removal of a child from a mother who does not have legal status in Canada with the very real chance of being deported and the placement of the child with the father, represent abuse – either of the woman or of the process of custody?

    Julie Billota has a criminal record that is growing with every passing moment and was such a wonderful mother after the unfortunate incident of the birth of her son on the floor of the Ottawa jail that the poor little fellow is now dead at 13 months. Ms Sarra, did that little nugget of info just slip your mind?

    Now to the main point, that of the incarceration of women in general and specifically, Native Women who are jailed. Ms Sarra, do you honestly think that the fact that “most” women in jail are mothers should have any bearing whatsoever on their incarceration? Should the fact that a woman who is Native should get a free pass because her ethnic group is disproportionally represented in Canada’s jails? The Canadian legal system and the Police Services who are the front line defense against crime, DO NOT indiscriminately arrest more Native women nor women who are mothers in general. They arrest the “Perps”, those who have committed the crimes. The obscene misrepresentation of Native women in our jails is due to one thing and one thing only – the Native women commit an obscenely disproportionate number of crimes compared to the general population!
    BTW, the same statistics and reasoning are true of the male prisons in Canada.

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