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Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill

Madam Speaker,

I move that the Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill be now read a first time.

Madam Speaker, at the appropriate time I intend to move that the bill be considered by the Law and Order Committee.

I have brought this Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Bill to Parliament for consideration because of what I believe are elements of grave inhumanity in the way we often treat mothers of babies within our prison system.

The catalyst came for me when I heard stories of mothers being refused any chance to breastfeed their newborn baby at all, of having their newborn forcibly removed, of the trauma of losing one's baby at 6 months or at other random points during the cycle of imprisonment, and worst of all, when I learned that the right to breast feed is at times being used as a tool of prison discipline.

In the 21st century in a supposedly civilised county like Aotearoa New Zealand I think we can do a whole lot better than this.

My bill has two overarching goals - to ensure prison authorities allow mothers to breastfeed their babies, and to extend the period during which mothers are allowed to keep their babies with them from six months to two years.

There is not an implication here, as some have suggested, that the breastfeeding and the time period are intrinsically tied together. They are two separate issues, and I still want to see mothers given the chance to keep their babies with them even if they are unable to breastfeed at all, or choose to stop breastfeeding before the two years are up, as in fact most women do.

In 2002 the World Health Organisation adopted the World Health Assembly's resolution to 'protect, promote and support exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and to provide safe and appropriate complementary foods, with continued breastfeeding for up to two years and beyond.'

Not only international resolutions like this but also all the research I've ever seen shows that breastfeeding is best for both the physical health and mental well-being of babies. It also assists hugely in the bonding process so critical for babies' long term chances in life. I don't think a small group of babies should be denied this right simply because their mothers are languishing in either the remand or sentenced part of the prison system.

The breastfeeding issue underlies the broader question of how long babies should be allowed to be accommodated with their imprisoned mothers and indeed whether they should be with the mother at all. In 2002 New Zealand prisons took a brave new step into the future by allowing babies aged under six months to live with their mothers in self care units in prison.

I would like to acknowledge former Alliance MP and Corrections Minister Matt Robson for the role he played in assisting this to happen, and I'm sorry he's not actually here in the House now to help us take the further steps which I'm proposing, steps I'm sure he would have backed all the way.

Now while six months in 2002 was at least a start, it means that we are still lagging a long way behind many other parts of the world. For example the state of Victoria in Australia allows children to stay with their mothers for up to six years; Malaysia and Canada allow four years; and Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand three years. Some of these countries are not exactly renowned for their progressive prison systems, and I think this is an indication of just how far behind international best practice we really are.

Some commentators have criticised my bill because they say that two years is far too young to take a child away from its mother. I agree with them, but it's a whole lot better than six months. I'd also add that I would certainly welcome support from the House to amend the Bill in Select Committee to at least three years which I think is a much more reasonable age at which to take the risk of forced separation. More mothers will have finished their sentences by then as well.

However, if we are not yet ready in this country to be quite that advanced in our reforms in this area, I hope my fellow MPs will at least support an extension to two years.

Forcibly separating a mother from baby at six months - or at any time before then - is nothing short of barbaric.

Some MPs will have seen the letter from a prisoner which I copied to them yesterday. I don't know how any mother among us can remain unmoved by this extract from her story.

To quote just a small portion of it:

'Nine hours after I gave birth to my precious daughter I was told I was coming back to prison. I said with my baby? And I was told 'no', just me....I broke down.....I deprived myself of sleep because I was so scared that I would wake up and my baby would be gone. Lost my appetite. Giving birth is meant to be such a happy occasion...the way I feel is that my heart doesn't beat it bleeds. I couldn't even breastfeed...because I didn't know what was happening.'

The process of having one's baby taken away against one's will is infinitely traumatic.

Some people say that these women are criminals and don't deserve the right to breastfeed or be with their baby. My response is that actually it is better for all of us if mothers and prisoners can have a better start with their babies because in fact their chances of rehabilitation will be so much higher.

For women who are living in the criminal subculture, often addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling and existing in the kind of parallel universe most so-called mainstream members of society know nothing or little about, one of the main hopes of rehabilitation can come from giving birth and raising a child or children.

It doesn't always work of course, but having a baby and being given the opportunity to live in a safe secure situation in which to love and nurture it can make all the difference in a woman's life.

The converse is true too - if the baby is ripped away from her at one day, two days, three months or six months, the despair and trauma that results can be absolutely devastating and result in a plunge even deeper back into the subculture from which she came.

Our corrections system should be about maximising rehabilitation. It should be about giving prisoners the utmost possibility of turning their lives around when they come out.

I don't think many parties in this House still believe that all we should focus on is punishment at the expense of the chance of change and redemption.

Then of course there is the question of what is best for the child. Some people seem to think that I am proposing to put mothers and babies into the kind of environment we see in TV programmes like 'Bad Girls' or hear about in so many books and movies. Far from it. For babies to stay with their mothers in prison both need to be in mother and baby self care units within the prison, but well separated from the general population.

These places give the children concerned the chance to live for a period in a stable and regulated environment, often with a lot more peace and security than can be offered by life outside - something that's on the minds of many of us at the moment I think after the double murder of the Kahui twins last week.

My bill does not say that the needs of the mother should be paramount over those of her child but they are intertwined. For the best possible start in life a baby should be able to stay with its mother for at least two years. It should have the opportunity to be breastfed wholly and then partially for as long as the mother desires and is able.

Mothers in prison do have to abide by protocols and ensure a drug and violence free environment for the child. They also have the chance to receive the kind of parenting education and support which they might not access on the outside for any number of reasons.

For the child too I believe it will often be better to spend the first two years of their life with their mother in prison than being passed from one relative to another or through a series of foster homes.

A further question that is sometimes asked about all this is about the potential cost to Corrections of establishing mother and baby units in all women's' prisons sufficient to meet demand. I believe this is a cost we can't afford not to meet, and in any case would never be particularly large, given we have some units already. According to the best current information I have there are only 13 pregnant women within our prison system at present, and while this number will always be subject to fluctuation it is hard to imagine it growing substantially.

At a purely instinctive level I think anyone who has been a mother can understand the trauma a woman must go through when she has her baby removed against her will. Whatever our attitude individually or as political parties to crime and punishment I sincerely believe that my bill represents a reform whose time has come.

I would like to thank all political parties in the House who have come out in support of my Bill at least to Select Committee. It is a tribute to you that you have seen past traditional approaches to law and order issues and have understood the potential benefits of putting the needs of babies and mothers before the urge to condemn and punish.

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First Reading, Parliament
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