Grandparent Health and Family Well-Being

Rachel Margolis, Ph.D.

Canada’s 7.1 million grandparents and great-grandparents make unique, diverse and valuable contributions to families and society, serving as role models, nurturers, historians, sources of experiential knowledge and more. As with the general population, the grandparent population in Canada is aging rapidly, sparking some concern in the media and public discourse about the potential impact of this “grey tsunami.”

However, despite being older, data show that the health of grandparents has improved over the past 30 years. This trend can positively impact families, since healthy grandparents can have a higher capacity to contribute to family life and help younger generations manage family responsibilities such as child care and household finances.

Improving grandparent health enhances their capacity to contribute to family life and help younger generations manage family responsibilities.

Canada is aging, and so are its grandparents

The aging of the grandparent population mirrors broader population aging trends across the country. According to the most recent Census in 2016, 16.9% of Canada’s population are seniors, nearly double the share in 1981 (9.6%) and the highest proportion to date. This growth is expected to continue over the next several decades: projections show that nearly one-quarter (23%) of Canadians will be 65 or older by 2031. Furthermore, the oldest Canadians (aged 100 and over) are currently the fastest-growing age group: there were 8,200 centenarians in 2016 (up 41% since 2011), and projections from Statistics Canada show that this group is likely to reach nearly 40,000 by 2051.

In this context, it’s perhaps no surprise that the overall grandparent population is also aging. The share of grandparents who are seniors grew from 41% in 1985 to 53% in 2011, and the share of grandparents who are aged 80 and older has grown even faster, nearly doubling from 6.8% in 1985 to 13.5% in 2011.

Life expectancy increases fuel grandparent population aging

One of the underlying factors fuelling the aging of the grandparent population is the fact that Canadians are living longer. According to Statistics Canada, life expectancy at birth has continued to rise steadily, reaching 83.8 years for women and 79.6 years for men in 2011–2013. This represents an increase of about a decade over the past half-century, with women and men gaining 9.5 years and 11.2 years, respectively, since the years 1960–1962.

In addition, more people are reaching seniorhood than in the past because of mortality declines at ages below age 65. Data from Statistics Canada shows that the average share of female newborns who can expect to reach age 65 rose from 86% for those born in 1980–1982 to 92% for those born in 2011–2013, while this share increased from 75% to 87% for males during the same period.

People are also living longer as seniors, as reflected in ongoing increases in life expectancy at age 65 – a useful measure of the well-being of older populations since it excludes mortality for those who do not reach seniorhood. According to estimates from Statistics Canada, life expectancy at age 65 in 2011–2013 was 21.9 years for women and 19 years for men – up by 3 years and 4.4 years, respectively, from 1980 to 1982.

Delayed fertility contributes to the aging of the grandparent population since it increases the age of transitioning into grandparenthood.

Another contributing factor to the aging of grandparents is the fact that on average, women are having children at older ages than in the past – a fertility trend that increases the age of transitioning into grandparenthood. The average age of first-time mothers has risen steadily since 1970, from 23.7 to 28.8 years in 2013. The number of first-time mothers aged 40 and older has also grown, rising from 1,172 in 1993 to 3,648 in 2013 (+210%). As more women postpone childbearing until later in life, their transition to grandparenthood will also likely occur later. Today’s new grandparents are baby boomers, a generation in which many women delayed fertility for education and work experience. Their children are also having children later, and the fertility postponement of two generations together is influencing the pattern of later entry into grandparenthood.

Despite the aging of grandparents, grandparenthood accounts for a growing portion of many people’s lives. Even though people are becoming grandparents later, they are living longer as grandparents. The longer period of time spent in the grandparent role can extend opportunities for forming, nurturing and strengthening relationships with younger generations. According to my recent research, the average number of years that someone can expect to spent as a grandparent given today’s demography in Canada is 24.3 years for women and 18.9 years for men – that’s approximately two decades in which they can continue to play a major role in family life.

Despite being older, grandparents are healthier

In addition to living longer, data from the General Social Survey (GSS) suggest that grandparents in Canada today are far more likely to report living in good health than in the past. The proportion who rate their health as “good/very good/excellent” has increased from 70% in 1985 to 77% in 2011, while the share reporting “fair/poor” health has fallen from 31% to 23%. Overall, the odds of grandparents reporting that they are in good health are 44% higher in 2011 than in 1985.

A number of trends have contributed to health improvements among grandparents and older Canadians in general over the past half-century. There have been significant advances in public health that have facilitated disease prevention, detection and treatment. Among other factors, this has led to major reductions in deaths from circulatory system diseases (e.g. heart disease), which has been one of the biggest contributors to gains in life expectancy among men over the past half-century.

Another factor contributing to improvements in the health of grandparents in Canada is the rising educational attainment of this population. Research shows that education can improve health both in direct and indirect ways throughout life. Direct impacts can include enhancing one’s health literacy, knowledge, interactions with the health care system and patients’ ability and willingness to advocate for themselves when engaging with health care providers. Indirect impacts can include an increase in one’s resources (e.g. income) or occupational opportunities (e.g. being less likely to have a physically demanding and/or risky job, and more likely to have a job with health benefits).

Education has been associated with greater health, which is significant because the share of grandparents who have completed post-secondary education has more than tripled over the past three decades.

These are important factors to consider in the Canadian context, since the share of grandparents who have completed post-secondary education has more than tripled over the past three decades, from 13% in 1985 to nearly 40% by 2011.

Healthy grandparents can facilitate family well-being

Grandparent health can have a significant impact on families. When a grandparent (or multiple grandparents) is living in poor health, families are often the first to provide, manage or pay for care that supports their well-being. This is particularly true for senior grandparents receiving care at home; the Health Council of Canada estimates that families provide between 70% and 75% of all home care received by seniors in Canada.

Data from the 2012 GSS show that nearly 3 in 10 Canadians (28%) reported providing caregiving to a family member in the past year, and aging-related needs were the most commonly cited reason for care (reported by 28% of caregivers). Grandparents accounted for 13% of all Canadians who received care, and they were also the most frequent recipients of young caregivers’ (aged 15 to 29) assistance, 4 in 10 of whom cited a grandparent as the primary recipient.

While 95% of caregivers say they’re effectively coping with their caregiving responsibilities, research has found that in some contexts, it can have a negative impact on their well-being, career development and family finances. This can be particularly true for the three-quarters of caregivers who are also in the paid labour force, accounting for more than one-third of all working Canadians.

On the other hand, when grandparents are living in good health, families can benefit in a variety of ways. In addition to the fact that it means they are less likely to require caregiving assistance, they are also more likely to be able to make positive contributions to family life, such as providing child care and contributing to family finances.

Grandparents provide child care to younger generations

Many grandparents play an important role in caring for their grandchildren, which can help parents in the “middle generation” manage their child care and paid work responsibilities. A number of economic, social and environmental trends have converged in recent decades that have increased the significant contributions they make to families with regard to child care.

Many grandparents play an important role in caring for their grandchildren, which can help parents in the “middle generation” manage their child care and paid work responsibilities.

Over the past four decades, the share of dual-earner couples in Canada has increased; in 1976, 36% of couples with children included two earners, a rate that nearly doubled to 69% by 2014. In more than half of these couples (51%), both parents worked full-time, which means they were more likely to rely on non-parental care for their children. This is supported by data from the 2011 GSS: while nearly half (46%) of all parents reported relying on some type of child care for their children aged 14 years and younger in the past year, the rate was higher (71%) for dual-earner parents with children aged 0 to 4 and children aged 5 to 14 (49%).

The evolution in family structure and composition across generations has also contributed to more families relying on non-parental care for their children. The share of lone-parent families has increased significantly over the past 50 years, rising from 8.4% of all families in 1961 to approximately 16% in 2016. Data from the 2011 GSS show that nearly 6 in 10 lone parents of children aged 4 and under (58%) report that they rely on non-parental care.

Sometimes grandparents are solely responsible for raising their grandchildren when no middle (i.e. parent) generation is present. The 2011 GSS counted 51,000 of these “skip-generation families” in Canada, which was home to 12% of all grandparents who live with their grandchildren. Some of those who live with their children are more likely than others to live in skip-generation homes, such as people reporting a First Nations (28%), Métis (28%) or Inuit (18%) identity (compared with 11% among the non-Indigenous population).

Lastly, many parents may rely on grandparents for help with child care if they can’t find quality, regulated child care spaces in their communities. In 2014, the availability in regulated, centre-based child care spaces was only sufficient for one-quarter (24%) of children aged 5 and under across Canada. While this is a significant increase from 12% in 1992, it still leaves more than 3 in 4 children in this age group without an available regulated child care space. The availability of child care (or a lack thereof) is significant, since it can affect whether or not parents in coupled families can both participate in the paid labour market.

The cost of child care can also lead parents to turn to grandparents for child care assistance. This is particularly true for families living in urban centres. One 2015 study on the cost of child care in Canadian cities, which used administrative fee data and randomized phone surveys conducted with child care centres and homes, found that the highest rates in Canada were in Toronto, where estimates showed median unsubsidized rates of $1,736 per month for full-day infant care (under 18 months of age) and $1,325 for toddlers (aged 1½ to 3).

Grandparent involvement can enhance child well-being

Regardless of the reason grandparents spend time with their grandchildren, their involvement in family life can benefit the well-being of children. Studies have shown that grandparent involvement in family life is significantly associated with child well-being – in particular, it has been associated with greater prosocial behaviours and school involvement. The benefits aren’t limited to children, either, as other research has shown that close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren can have a positive impact on mental health for both. Among First Nations families, grandparents have also been found to play an important role in supporting cultural health and healing among younger generations.

Research shows that grandparent involvement in family life is significantly associated with child well-being, including greater prosocial behaviours and school involvement.

The broader context of improving grandparent health is good news for many families, since their better health can make it easier to participate in activities with children and grandchildren, and research shows that these interactions with younger kin can be more rewarding in this context.

Many grandparents play an important role in family finances

Improvements in grandparent health can also enhance their capacity to engage in paid work, which can improve their own finances and facilitate contributions to younger generations.

Improvements in grandparent health also enhance their capacity to engage in paid work, which can improve their own finances and facilitate contributions to younger generations.

While there isn’t much recent data on the employment patterns of grandparents in Canada per se, rising rates of working seniors have been well documented over the past several decades. Between 1997 and 2003, the paid labour force participation rate for seniors ranged between 6% and 7%, but this has steadily increased to around 14% in the first half of 2017 (and an even higher rate of 27% for those aged 65 to 69). Since approximately 8 in 10 seniors in Canada are grandparents, it’s clear that a growing number of grandparents are working today.

The potential for grandparents to contribute to family finances through paid work can be particularly important for the 8% who live in multi-generational households. According to data from the 2016 Census, this is the fastest-growing household type, having grown in number by nearly 38% between 2011 and 2016 to reach 403,810 homes. Similar to patterns found among skip-generation families, this living arrangement is more common among Indigenous and immigrant families, which both represent a growing share of families in Canada.

Skip-generation living arrangements are more common among Indigenous and immigrant families, which both represent a growing share of families in Canada.

Data from the 2011 GSS showed that among the 584,000 grandparents living in these types of homes, more than half (50.3%) reported that they have financial responsibilities in the household. Some were more likely than others to contribute to family finances: rates were significantly higher for those living in skip-generation households (80%) and multi-generational households with a lone-parent middle generation (75%).

Opportunities are growing for grandparent–family relationships

While the aging of the general and grandparent population in Canada presents certain societal challenges, notably with regard to community care, housing, transportation and income security, their rising life expectancy and improving health present growing opportunities for individuals and families. Many grandparents already help younger generations with fulfilling family responsibilities, such as child care and managing family finances, and this will continue in the years ahead – a positive side of the story that is often lost in narratives about the “grey tsunami.”

As the health of grandparents has improved over the years, many have been able to enjoy a greater quantity and quality of relationships with younger family members. As families adapt and react to their evolving social, economic and cultural contexts, they will continue to play an important – and likely growing – role in family life for generations to come.

 


Rachel Margolis, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario.

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Published on September 5, 2017




Employment Mobility and Family Gentrification in Montreal

Steven High (Concordia University)
Lysiane Goulet Gervais (Concordia University)
Michelle Duchesneau (Concordia University)
Dany Guay-Bélanger (Carleton University)

As Canada’s economy evolves, along with the opportunities and constraints it provides, family members adapt to fulfill their responsibilities at home and at work. For many family members, this can involve travelling long distances for work and being away from home for days, weeks or even months at a time. Since 2012, the On the Move Partnership((On the Move is a cross-sectoral partnership involving 40 researchers from 17 disciplines and 22 universities across Canada and around the world that is funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).)) has been exploring this phenomenon of employment-related geographic mobility (E-RGM) and has found that more Canadians than ever before are regularly commuting to work over longer distances in “complex and nuanced” patterns.((Michael Hann, Deatra Walsh and Barbara Neis, “At the Crossroads: Geography, Gender and Occupational Sector in Employment-Related Geographical Mobility,” Canadian Studies in Population, 41:3–4 (2014).))

Most people think of rural work environments such as northern gas and oil or mining worksites when examining the impact of mobile work and rarely consider Canada’s inner-city regions, yet these emerging labour patterns are shaping the social and economic environments of communities of all kinds.

As part of the On the Move Partnership, we have explored the impact of mobile work in urban centres through extensive interviews over the past two years with Canadians engaged in mobile work, which ranged from extended daily commutes to extended travel across Quebec and around the world. The workers and families in this study were living in Montreal’s Southwest neighbourhoods of Little Burgundy, Saint-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles. Once heavily industrialized, these inner-city areas experienced social and economic change as a result of the rapid deindustrialization and out-migration that occurred during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. This was followed by a period of family gentrification, as middle-class people moved into the areas with their loved ones.

Families “localize” resource access to manage responsibilities despite absences

Our interview findings suggest that there is a connection between employment mobility and family gentrification. Families with sufficient financial resources are choosing to live in inner-city neighbourhoods in order to “localize” other aspects of their lives. This localization includes (but is not limited to) ensuring that community resources such as neighbourhood daycares and schools, playgrounds, stores and public transportation (especially the city’s metro system and the airport express bus) are readily accessible to households in which a family member is engaged in mobile work.
 

One parent’s mobility often leads to the relative immobility of other family members, who then often become more dependent on proximity to community resources.

 
Proximity to the central city serves to counterbalance the prolonged absences of family members resulting from work-related mobility. Among two-parent families, since this mobility results in an absence from the family home, one parent’s mobility often leads to the relative immobility of other family members, who then often become more dependent on proximity to community resources.

Mobile work adds complexity to family life and relationships

In this study, interviewed parents shared their reflections on the impact of mobile work on their children and on family life. One mother, Imane,((First names have been changed to ensure privacy.)) expressed concern about the impact of the work-related mobility on her children’s physical health: “The funny thing is that young kids tend to stress without letting you know. And the only way that they let you know is that they get sick. So, when he travels a lot, they get sick a lot. It is their way of saying that they are not happy about this situation.”
 

“… young kids tend to stress without letting you know. And the only way that they let you know is that they get sick. So, when he travels a lot, they get sick a lot. It is their way of saying that they are not happy about this situation.” (study participant)

 
Family members engaged in mobile work expressed concerns about managing their parenting roles when they are often away from home. Some shared feelings of sadness and a longing to be more involved in their children’s lives and frustration around having to schedule their children’s activities according to their travel plans – something that surfaced repeatedly in the interviews.

One mobile-working mother, Kate, told us that returning home after being away for weeks at a time made her feel as though she had missed large chunks of her son’s development and growth. With both Kate and her partner, Russell, being mobile workers, even when one is home, the other is frequently away. Life in not quite the same in those moments, she says, “Whether it is Russell or whether it is me, we are always waiting a little bit to live.”

Among our interviewees, Imane had the most to say about the impact of mobile work on family life. If her interview had a recurring theme, it would be that her family life in the context of mobile work is “complicated.” Asked about the effect of her husband’s travels on the family, she replies, “That’s kind of complicated, because we need help with the kids. I have to get the girls ready.” The eldest is sent to school with friends, while Imane takes her youngest to daycare. She picks them up at the end of the day and prepares dinner without her partner being there. “It’s not just taking care of the kids, it’s doing everything like taking care of the home yourself, doing groceries, meals, plus the activities, the school and daycare. Life gets complicated.” Her husband’s absence leaves her with little flexibility and a significantly increased family workload. “I can’t even get sick,” she says.

Parents who stay “back home” adapt to accommodate their partners’ mobility

As she is self-employed, Imane usually has to work after the kids are asleep: “But when he’s away, I am so tired that I can’t really work when the girls sleep.” As a result, her own work is often left undone, something she finds stressful. Luckily, Imane’s mother lives in Montreal and helps manage family roles and responsibilities, such as cooking, laundry or picking up the girls. She stressed the importance of maintaining a routine, even when her husband is away for extended periods: “Life doesn’t change when he is away… [so] we continue living our life as usual.” Summing up things, Imane says, “You continue the routines and the busy schedule of having kids.”

Family life moves on even when a parent is away at work. One mobile worker, Pierre, explained that travelling for work wasn’t an issue before his daughter was born. Now, he is concerned about spending time with her, since his long commutes mean that when he leaves and arrives from work she is usually asleep. He is also worried that travelling for work will affect his capacity to take on his share of familial responsibilities. Several interviewees also said that they used to travel as a family when one of them had to work away from home, but that they stopped once their children reached school age. Imane’s family used to travel together but didn’t want to take the children out of school too often, so they now only rarely accompany their father when he travels for work.

Families use technology to maintain and manage family relationships

Families are increasingly using technology and new media to bridge the distance and remain present in family life. While not all families have access to these tools, these “virtual intimacies” are a growing reality and can help provide continuity in family rituals and relationships in the context of family absences.((R. Wilding, “‘Virtual’ Intimacies? Families Communicating Across Transnational Contexts,” Global Networks 6:2 (February 28, 2006), doi:10.1111/j.1471-0374.2006.00137.x.))
 

“Virtual intimacies” are a growing reality and can help provide continuity in family rituals and relationships in the context of family absences.

 
A number of study participants spoke of the importance of FaceTime, Skype and other social media in maintaining a connection to home while away. For example, while he’s away, Russell “continues to participate in some of the rituals of life with a child, such as bedtime stories and goodnight songs via Skype.” His partner, Kate, elaborates, “This didn’t exist before, 12 years ago, let’s say. It wasn’t possible – it was phone bills through the roof [laughs]. Nowadays, it is possible to communicate for a small charge or no cost at all; it really, really, really helps to save the day.” Imane says that when her husband travels internationally, communication can be difficult. If he is in India or Pakistan, there is a 10- or 11-hour difference, which can make it hard to find the right time to connect. Also, she says that “the girls don’t like the phone so much, so yeah, it’s not easy.” Her eldest would “barely say ‘Hi, I’m good, everything’s good. Here’s Mom.’” At only 3 years of age, her youngest child doesn’t really speak on the phone yet.

Children notice routine changes resulting from mobility

In order to gain an intergenerational understanding of how work mobility affects family life, we interviewed four children ages 5 to 7 as part of the study. Much of what these children shared reinforced what the parents said, while other elements of the interviews revealed a different perspective. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the children mainly recall the disruptions in their routine.

They fondly remember staying up late or eating certain foods as joyous occasions when the travelling parent is away. June talked about being sad that her mom, Laura, was away but also appreciates the extra time with dad and the extra privileges she receives, “I’m sad when mom is gone, but I am also happy because I get to stay up late.” Some of the children remember receiving and giving gifts upon return and other people caring for them: grandparents, family friends and others.

Families adapt to fulfill their responsibilities

By focusing on three different locations, our place-based approach to the issue of employment mobility allowed us to view mobility from another perspective. This approach highlighted some of the impacts on family life while considering the full spectrum of mobile work, from extended daily commuters to regular travellers who leave home for extended periods. It also encouraged us to consider the relationship between employment mobility and family fixity (aspects of family life that are geographically bound or fixed), particularly as it plays out in “local” processes of urban gentrification. Our research highlighted that while families experience a number of impacts resulting from mobile work, they evolve and adjust in diverse ways – including living close to community resources, adapting family relationships and using technology – to manage their multiple responsibilities.

 


Steven High is a Professor of History at Concordia University and co-founder of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.

Lysiane Goulet Gervais recently graduated from Concordia University’s art therapy program with a master’s degree.

Michelle Duchesneau is a graduate student at Concordia University’s School for Community and Public Affairs.

Dany Guay-Bélanger is currently working toward a master’s degree in the public history program at Carleton University.

Photo: New condominium complexes now line Montreal’s Lachine Canal. Photograph by David W. Lewis.

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Published on April 25, 2017

 




Polyamory in Canada: Research on an Emerging Family Structure

John-Paul Boyd, M.A., LL.B.

Executive Director
Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family (University of Calgary)

 
The Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family began a study of perceptions of polyamory in Canada in June 2016. The project is only midway through its course, but the data collected so far have important implications for law and policy in the coming decades, as the meaning of family continues to evolve.

The term polyamory is a mash-up of the Greek word for much or many and the Latin word for love. As these roots suggest, people who are polyamorous are, or prefer to be, involved in more than one intimate relationship at a time. Some polyamorists are involved in stable, long-term, loving relationships involving two or more other people. Others are simultaneously engaged in a number of relationships of varying degrees of permanence and commitment. Still others are involved in a web of concurrent relationships ranging from short-term relationships that are purely sexual in nature to more enduring relationships characterized by deep emotional attachments.

 

Polyamory
The practice or condition of participating in more than one intimate relationship at a time. It is usually not related to religion and it is unrelated to marriage.

Polygamy
The practice or condition of having more than one spouse, typically a wife, at one time, usually for religious reasons.

 

Polyamory and polygamy

For many people, TLC’s Sister Wives and the religious community in Bountiful, British Columbia are what come to mind when polyamory is mentioned. However, there are a number of differences between polyamory and the polygamy practised by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, that being the common connection between Sister Wives and Bountiful. Polygamy in this sense refers to marriages – the “gamy” of polygamy comes from the Greek for marriage – between one man and many wives that are mandated by scripture and distinctly patriarchal.

In contrast, surveyed polyamorists involved in relationships with two or more other adults place a high value on the equality of their partners, regardless of gender or parental status. They tend to believe that their partners should have a say in changes to their relationships and should be able to leave those relationships how and when they wish.

Although Statistics Canada doesn’t track the number of Canadians who are polyamorous or engaged in polyamorous relationships, in just three weeks we received 547 valid responses to a survey on polyamory advertised primarily through social media.((Survey data have not been weighted.)) More than two-thirds of respondents (68%) said that they are currently involved in a polyamorous relationship, and, of those who weren’t, two-fifths (39.9%) said that they had been involved in such a relationship in the last five years. More than four-fifths of respondents said that in their view the number of people who identity as polyamorous is increasing (82.4%), as is the number of people openly involved in polyamorous relationships (80.9%).
 

If the number of people involved in polyamorous relationships is indeed growing, the potential economic and legal implications are significant, as almost all of Canada’s most important social institutions are predicated on the assumption that adult relationships come only in pairs.

 
If the number of people involved in polyamorous relationships is indeed growing, the potential economic and legal implications are significant, as almost all of Canada’s most important social institutions are predicated on the assumption that adult relationships come only in pairs. The Canada Pension Plan pays survivor’s benefits to only one spouse; the Old Age Security spousal allowance can only be paid to one partner. The forms we use to calculate our liability to the Canada Revenue Agency likewise assume that taxpayers have sequential but not concurrent relationships, an assumption shared by the provincial legislation on wills and estates and, for the most part, the provincial legislation on domestic relations.
 

Polyamorists in Canada are generally younger, and live in diverse relationships

Most of the respondents to our survey live in British Columbia (144), followed by Ontario (116), Alberta (71) and Quebec (37). Respondents tend to be younger than the general Canadian population, with 75% of respondents being between the ages of 25 and 44, compared to 26% of the general population, and only 16% of respondents being age 45 or older, compared to 44% of the general population.

Most of the respondents to our survey had completed high school (96.7%), and respondents’ highest levels of education attained were undergraduate degrees (26.3%), followed by post-graduate or professional degrees (19.2%) and college diplomas (16.3%). Respondents reported achieving significantly higher levels of educational attainment than the general population of Canada: 37% of respondents reported holding an undergraduate university degree, compared with 17% of the general population; and 19% of respondents reported holding a post-graduate or professional degree, compared with 8% of the general population.
 
 

 
The respondents to our survey also tended to have higher incomes than their peers in the general Canadian population. Fewer respondents (46.8%) had incomes under $40,000 per year than the general population (60%), and more respondents (31%) had incomes of $60,000 or more per year than the general population (23%). Although almost half of our respondents had annual incomes of less than $39,999, almost two-thirds of respondents were not the sole income-earner in their household (65.4%) and more than three-fifths of respondents’ households (62.3%) had total incomes between $80,000 and $149,999 per year.

Slightly less than one-third of respondents identified as male (30%) and almost three-fifths identified as female (59.7%); the rest identified as genderqueer (3.5%), gender fluid (3.2%), transgender (1.3%) or “other” (2.2%). A plurality of respondents described their sexuality as either heterosexual (39.1%) or bisexual (31%).

Most of the respondents to our survey described themselves as atheists (33.9%) or agnostic (28.2%). Of those subscribing to an organized faith, most said that they were Christian (non-denominational, 7.2%; Roman Catholic, 3.2%; Protestant, 1.3%). However, more than one-fifth of respondents (22.1%) described their faith as “other,” including Quakers, pagans and polytheists.

We also asked our respondents about their relationships and living arrangements. Almost two-thirds of the respondents answering this question said that their relationship involved three people (64.6%), 17.9% said that their relationship involved four people and 13.8% said that their relationship involved six or more people. Only one-fifth of respondents said that the members of their relationship lived in a single household (19.7%). Where the members of a family lived in more than one household, most lived in two households (44.3%) or three households (22.2%).

 


 
Where the members of a family live in a single household, three-fifths of respondents’ households involved at least one married couple (61.2%), and there was only one married couple in those households. Where the members of a family lived in more than one household, almost half involved at least one married couple (45.4%), and 85% of those households involved one married couple while the remainder involved two married couples (12.9%), three married couples (1.4%) and more than three married couples (0.7%).

Almost one-quarter of the survey respondents (23.2%) said that at least one child under the age of 19 lives full-time in their household under the care of at least one parent or guardian, and 8.7% said that at least one child lives part-time in their household under the care of at least one parent or guardian.
 
 

 
To summarize, the respondents to our survey tended to be younger, with higher levels of education and higher employment rates than the general Canadian population. Twice as many respondents identified as female than male, and roughly equal numbers of respondents described themselves as heterosexual and bisexual. Most respondents involved in polyamorous relationships at the time of the survey were involved in a relationship with two other people. However, a significant number of respondents were involved in relationships with more than three other people and the members of most respondents’ relationships live in two or more households.
 

Surveyed polyamorists highly value equality in relationships and family decision-making

The survey also explored attitudes toward polyamorous relationships and the people involved in them, and about their perceptions of the attitude of the general public toward polyamory.

On the whole, respondents strongly endorsed the equality of members of their relationships, regardless of gender and parental status. More than eight in 10 respondents (82.1%) strongly agreed and 12.5% agreed with the statement that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should be treated equally regardless of gender or gender identity. More than half (52.9%) strongly agreed and 21.5% agreed with the statement that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should be treated equally regardless of parental or guardianship status.

Likewise, a large majority of respondents agreed that all members of their relationships should have a say about changes in those relationships. About eight in 10 (80.5%) strongly agreed or agreed that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should have an equal say about changes in the nature of the relationship, and 70.3% strongly agreed or agreed that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should have an equal say about introducing new people into the relationship. More than nine in 10 respondents (92.9%) strongly agreed and 6.3% agreed with the statement that each person in a polyamorous relationship should have the right to leave the relationship if and when they choose.

Respondents’ conviction in the equality, autonomy and participation of the members of their relationships likely explains another important finding from our research: 89.2% of respondents strongly agreed and 9.2% agreed with the statement that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should have the responsibility to be honest and forthright with each other.

The views of the general public toward polyamory have doubtless been complicated by the popularity of television shows dealing with polygamy, such as Sister Wives, My Five Wives, another TLC offering, and Big Love, from HBO, and by the publicity attracted by the recent criminal prosecution of a number of community leaders from Bountiful under s. 293 of the Criminal Code. The views of respondents themselves have also been influenced by the Criminal Code, sections 291 and 293 of which respectively prohibit bigamy and polygamy.

Although most respondents said that public tolerance of polyamory is growing (72.6%), more than eight in 10 (80.6%) agreed that people see polyamorous relationships as a kind of kink or fetish. Furthermore, only 16.7% of respondents agreed that people see polyamorous relationships as a legitimate form of family

Polyamorous families have a unique and complex relationship with the law

The responsibilities of people involved in long-term, committed polyamorous families tend to be complicated, especially when those responsibilities must intersect with people outside the family, government services and the law. The difficulties faced by polyamorous families, especially those with children, cover every aspect of life in Canada:

  • Who will schools recognize as parents and guardians, entitled to pick children up from school, give permission for outings or talk to teachers about academic performance?
  • Who can get information from and give instruction to doctors, dentists, counsellors and other health care providers?
  • Who can receive benefits from an employee’s health insurance? Who is entitled to coverage under provincial health care plans (e.g., OHIP in Ontario or MSP in British Columbia)?
  • Who is entitled to claim public benefits such as the Old Age Security spousal allowance or Canada Pension Plan survivor’s benefits?
  • What are the rights and entitlements of multiple adults under the provincial legislation on wills and estates, or the federal legislation on immigration?
  • How many adults may participate in the legal parentage of a child under the legislation on adoption and assisted reproduction?
  • What are the rights and entitlements of individuals leaving polyamorous families under the provincial legislation on domestic relations?

 
Many of the answers to these questions come down to how the applicable laws, policies and rules define terms such as parent, spouse and guardian, adult interdependent partner in Alberta, or common-law partner under most federal statutes.

The responsibilities of people involved in long-term, committed polyamorous families tend to be complicated, especially when those responsibilities must intersect with people outside the family, government services and the law.  

Although schools and hospitals tend to look at the nature of the relationship between the individuals in question rather than a textbook definition of “parent,” agencies providing benefits tend to cleave more rigidly to narrowly defined terms. Some polyamorous families, for example, have been required to decide which of the adults in their family will be deemed to be an employee’s “spouse” for the purposes of health care and prescription coverage, resulting in the coverage of the employee and the family member selected as his or her spouse, but the denial of benefits to others.

The most urgent of these questions, however, likely relate to individuals’ entitlements and obligations under the provincial legislation on domestic relations. When committed polyamorous relationships come to an end, the same range of problems tend to arise as those faced by people ending monogamous relationships. Depending on the circumstances, the departure of one or more members of a polyamorous family may result in disagreements about: where children will live, how parenting decisions will be made and how much time the children will have with whom; whether child support must be paid, and if so who must pay it; whether a person is entitled to spousal support, and if so who is responsible for paying it; and how property and debt will be distributed, and whether an individual is entitled to an interest in property owned only by other family members.
 

When committed polyamorous relationships come to an end, the same range of problems tend to arise as those faced by people ending monogamous relationships.

 
On the whole, the legislation of the common law provinces tends toward the generous extension of rights and duties relating to children but takes a more parsimonious approach to spousal support and the division of property.

In keeping with the child-first approach of the Child Support Guidelines, the statutes of Canada’s common law provinces all impose a liability for child support on persons who are step-parents or stand in the place of a parent to a child, whether anyone else is subject to a pre-existing child support liability or not. As a result, all members of a polyamorous family are potentially liable to pay support for a member’s child, particularly where the child’s primary residence was the polyamorous household.

A dependent adult family member may be entitled to spousal support from another member of a polyamorous family if:

a) the person is a married spouse of the other member; or,

b) the person qualifies as an adult interdependent partner (Alberta), an unmarried spouse (British Columbia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan), a partner (Newfoundland and Labrador) or a common-law partner (Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia) of another member.((Note that the legal situation in Quebec is different than in the rest of the rest of Canada’s provinces since it is governed by civil law rather than the common law system used in the other provinces. As such, it is beyond the scope of this article.))

A dependent adult family member may be entitled to spousal support from more than one family member where the legislation is not written so as to preclude the possibility of concurrent spousal relationships, as it is in Alberta, or the person qualifies as an unmarried spouse or partner of those members, as may be the case for families living in British Columbia.

In all of the common law provinces but Alberta and Manitoba, a child’s parents may share custody of the child, as well as the associated rights to receive information about the child and make decisions concerning the child, with:

a) other family members who fall within the statutory definition of guardian (British Columbia, Nova Scotia) or parent (New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Prince Edward Island); and,

b) any other family members where the legislation does not require a biological relationship to apply for custody (British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan).

The legislation of British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador additionally allow more people than the biological parents of a child to have standing as the legal parents of that child when the child is conceived through assisted reproduction.

In all of the common law provinces except Manitoba, a child’s parents may share guardianship of the child, and the associated obligations as trustees of the child’s property, with one or more other family members.

With the exception of British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, statutory rights to the possession and ownership of property are restricted to married spouses in the common law provinces, limiting the relief available to the unmarried members of a polyamorous family to:

a) the legislation generally applicable to co-owned real and personal property; and,

b) whichever principles of equity and the common law might apply in the circumstances of the relationship.

The statutory property rights available to the members of polyamorous families in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan arise from the application of the legislation to unmarried spouses (British Columbia, Saskatchewan) and common-law partners (Manitoba), and the failure of the legislation to preclude the possibility of concurrent spousal relationships.
 

A look down the road

The traditional model of the Western nuclear family, consisting of married heterosexual parents and their legitimate offspring, which prevailed almost unaltered for more than 1,000 years, has been evolving at an ever-increasing pace since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, along with the legal concepts and structures that support it. The legal disabilities of married women, such as their inability to own property or conduct business in their own names, were the first to go, followed by the disabilities associated with bastardy, such as the inability to inherit or assume their father’s title.

The federal Divorce Act first allowed Canadians to end their marriages other than by dying in 1968, and the baby boomers, the oldest of whom turned 65 in 2011, are the first generation to have lived almost the whole of their adult lives under federal divorce legislation. Not only has the stigma associated with divorce largely evaporated, but the rate of remarriage and repartnering has continued to rise over the last two decades, as has the number of blended families, which seem to now be as commonplace as unblended families.

Sexual orientation became a prohibited ground of discrimination in the mid-1990s, following which same-sex marriage became legal in Ontario in 2002, and in eight other provinces and territories in rapid succession thereafter, until the introduction of the federal Civil Marriage Act in 2005 legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country. Legislation giving unmarried cohabiting couples property rights identical to those of married spouses became law in Saskatchewan in 2001, in Manitoba in 2004 and in British Columbia in 2011.

In Canada, family is now thoroughly unmoored from marriage, gender, sexual orientation, reproduction and childrearing; the presumption that romantic relationships, whether casual, cohabiting or conjugal, are limited to two persons at one time is likely to be the next focal point of change.

The scant data currently available on polyamorous relationships suggest that the number of people involved in such families is not insignificant and may be increasing: according to a 2009 article in Newsweek, Loving More, a magazine aimed at polyamorous individuals, has “15,000 regular readers,” and more than 500,000 Americans live in openly polyamorous relationships; in Polyamory in the Twenty-First Century, author Deborah Anapol estimates that one in 500 Americans are polyamorous; and the website of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, polyadvocacy.ca, identifies two other national organizations supporting or connecting people involved in polyamorous relationships and eight similar regional organizations based in the Maritimes, 36 in Quebec and Ontario, 23 in the prairie provinces and 22 in British Columbia.
 

We have successfully accommodated significant, transformational change to how we think of family in the past, and we will do so again.

 
If the prevalence of polyamory is indeed increasing, a significant number of our most important social customs and institutions will need to evolve. This will require a reconsideration of how we think of parenthood and how we distribute the liabilities parenthood entails. It will also have an impact on how we demarcate those committed adult relationships that attract legal entitlements and obligations and those that do not, as well as how these entitlements and obligations are distributed among more than two people.

Although the magnitude of potential change is significant, it is not pressingly imminent; we have time to acclimate and adapt to the rising number of polyamorous individuals and families. We have successfully accommodated significant, transformational change to how we think of family in the past, and we will do so again.

 


John-Paul Boyd, M.A., LL.B., is the Executive Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, a multidisciplinary non-profit organization affiliated with the University of Calgary.

To learn more about John-Paul Boyd’s research into polyamorous relationships and family law, see “Polyamorous Families in Canada: Early Results of New Research from CRILF” from the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family.

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Published on April 11, 2017




Lived Experience: Understanding Families Affected by Incarceration

Farhat Rehman

Incarceration has an impact on thousands of families across Canada. When a person is sentenced to time in prison, their families are often profoundly affected; they are separated from a son, daughter, sibling, parent or other relative. Feelings of stigma, guilt and shame are common, and can be compounded when the sentenced family member is also living with a mental health condition – a reality for many incarcerated individuals and their families.

My family life has been profoundly affected by incarceration ever since my son was sentenced in 2001. When the chasm of the prison system had swallowed him up, the world appeared dark with no hope of seeing daylight. Our lives took a drastic turn on that ominous day. Our family’s lives and relationships were forever changed.

As a mother, I couldn’t help but wonder over and over again why my son had committed such a serious criminal act. Why did his mind work this way? What could have been done to prevent this catastrophe? Why, after years of treatment in the mental health system, had he still fallen through the cracks? What could I have done differently that would have prevented this crime from taking place and tearing apart two families? Since then, there have been daily reminders as I speak to him and visit him in prison. For us, his family, the impact of my son’s action have sunk in gradually over time. The nightmare of prison has played havoc with his mental health conditions with all the ups and downs of a roller coaster, and it’s become a constant source of worry for our family.
 

The nightmare of prison has played havoc with his mental health conditions with all the ups and downs of a roller coaster, and it’s become a constant source of worry for our family.

 

Incarceration affects family relationships, family traditions and family futures

As we have learned, in-person visits can be traumatic for the visitor. When visiting someone in prison, you have to first pass through layers of security such as the ion scanner (a drug-scanning device known for detecting false positives). Otherwise, you risk being turned away, which can seriously impact the inmate’s prison life.

There is no occasion that is celebrated as a family where I don’t feel my son’s absence. The festivities, the good food and laughter lack the genuine happiness that can come from family gatherings. This is never really talked about openly.

Family members will occasionally ask about my son and he may receive birthday cards from family and friends, but there is a kind of hesitation to discuss such a sad subject and ruin a festive atmosphere. The fact a family member has not been seen among you for almost 16 years registers low on the Richter scale of family life.

These days, as I contemplate the possibilities of the future, I wonder if this will be the time that my son will be able to start to turn his life around. Will he convince the authorities that he is deeply remorseful and resolved to never offend again? Will he be seen as worthy of being allowed to be paroled out of prison and into the community, where he can start the long process of healing and repairing the ravages of a lengthy period of incarceration? Will he be able to reintegrate himself into our family, one that misses him terribly but has adapted to life in his absence?

The love and light of support gets families through

While I contemplate these questions daily, I am grateful for the support of those around me. When my son – and my family – first began our journey with the justice system, I felt like I was travelling down an uncharted road. Despite being well connected to community, there was no real support I could turn to where others would understand what it was like to have a son in prison.
 

Despite being well connected to community, there was no real support I could turn to where others would understand what it was like to have a son in prison.

 
In November 2010, a community activist and expert connected to the Church Council on Justice and Corrections and a crisis worker at the John Howard Society (JHS) introduced me to ‬another mother with a son in prison. We all met for the first time at JHS in December 2010 – three mothers coming together with common experiences and goals.

From this shared experience, Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS), a support group for women, was born. The first formal MOMS meeting occurred on December 15, 2010. Our meetings take place at the local JHS building, during the first Thursday of the month. JHS has generously donated this space to us so we can meet in a location with privacy.

We now total more than 45 members, all of whom feel immensely grateful to be able to come together and climb out of the black hole we fell into when our children were convicted of an offence resulting in their incarceration. Now we come together to support each other and find ways to help them in a meaningful and constructive way. Mothers whose sons have completed their sentence or are on parole continue to support and guide the new members who join the group.

A loving family on the outside can play an important role in advocating, financially supporting and providing loving contact to offset the indelible ravages of incarceration. Through MOMs, we are able to support each other as we support our incarcerated children.
 

A loving family on the outside can play an important role in advocating, financially supporting and providing loving contact to offset the indelible ravages of incarceration.

 
The harsh realities of incarceration are with us, but together we encourage each other to take one day at a time. We have been working to ensure the justice system facilitates rehabilitation and education, with a focus on physical and mental well-being and supporting our sons or daughters while they serve their sentences and plan for their futures. This has provided us with opportunities to engage in dialogue with government and community leaders about human rights. Policies and programs benefit from understanding our lived experiences and our perspective as mothers. We have been encouraged by increased public awareness of these issues.

As you can imagine, for some moms and family members, issues of stigma and safety keep us fearful of speaking out publicly, even though we are worried sick and lose sleep thinking about the condition of our children. We do not want to add to our shame and worry by being on the receiving end of insensitive or negative comments.

As mothers affected by incarceration, we meet regularly to share our experiences and our shock, pain and heartbreak. Working together gives us energy to focus on strategies to equip ourselves with knowledge and best practices to keep ourselves and our loved ones hopeful and healthy. We are determined to achieve humane and just treatment for our loved ones in prison as we work together to strengthen the ties that bind us in our struggle as families affected by incarceration.

 


Farhat Rehman is co-founder of Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS), a support group for women with incarcerated family members.

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Published on March 14, 2017




Supporting the Health of Mothers and Their Babies in the Context of Incarceration

Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin and Brenda Tole

When a friend told Ruth Elwood Martin that there was a need for a part-time family physician to work in a women’s correctional centre, her immediate thought was that there was no way she could work in a prison clinic. She perceived that it was the lowest kind of medical job, only for those doctors who were unable to find any other type of work.

Ruth is not sure what drew her to start practising medicine in a prison, but she did. On that first day in 1994, she felt like she was visiting another planet, passing through those gates, experiencing another world and learning from the people inside it. Ruth saw more pathology and more tragic medical diagnoses than she had seen in a year in her regular family practice in Vancouver’s West Side.

In the clinic, women told her about traumatic events they endured as children, young teenagers and women. Ruth would put down her pen, bearing witness to their lives, and listen to medical and social histories she could not imagine enduring. That first day in her new position changed Ruth’s life forever and she knew that prison health would become her calling. Ruth has often reflected that if she had been dealt the same childhood cards as the women she met, she might be sitting in their chairs.

In 2003, Brenda Tole was assigned to oversee the remodelling of an older facility that had housed provincially incarcerated men and to open it as the “Alouette Correctional Centre for Women” (ACCW), a medium-security facility to house provincially sentenced women. If you are a parent with school-aged children, you will have noticed how the school principal greatly influences the overall ethos of a school. In a similar manner, the warden of a prison influences the ethos of the institution, which in turn influences the overall health of the inmates.

From the day it opened in 2004, Brenda shaped the tone and ethos of ACCW. She maintained that if you expect both staff and incarcerated individuals to treat each other with respect, they will rise to meet those expectations, at least most of the time. That’s how she planned and that’s how she ran ACCW, not on the basis that 1% of the population may breach those expectations.

Brenda knew that the more she gave people opportunities, the more they valued the opportunities and responded positively. The more she gave responsibility to the women for doing things themselves, and the more she talked with the staff about her plans, the better the situation would be for everyone.

During a meeting of key health care players planning for health care delivery at the new ACCW, Brenda met Sarah Payne, the director of Fir Square at BC Women’s Hospital, a maternity unit for substance-using mothers. Babies who remained with moms at Fir Square had positive health outcomes compared with the health of babies that were taken away from their moms at birth.((Ronald R. Abrahams et al., “Rooming-in Compared with Standard Care for Newborns of Mothers Using Methadone or Heroin,” Canadian Family Physician 53:10 (October 2007), http://bit.ly/2k4K29I.)) Sarah asked Brenda to consider the possibility that babies born to incarcerated mothers who came to the BC Women’s Hospital for their delivery might return with their mothers to ACCW, in order to foster breastfeeding, attachment and nurturing.

Separation through incarceration negatively affects the health of new mothers and their infants

With peer-reviewed academic literature growing on the subject, Brenda had good reason to consider this proposal. Evidence shows that one of the most compelling motivators for incarcerated women is pregnancy and their children. International correctional practices that promote contact between women and their children have shown benefits for both. Positive results have been seen in visits, email, tapes, telephone calls and letters. Children of incarcerated women are negatively impacted if the contact with their mother is limited or absent. Although it is accepted around the world that nursing infants and/or small children benefit from remaining with their incarcerated mothers, this was rarely seen in Canada at that time.

Many incarcerated women have dependent children. Worldwide, an estimated 6% of incarcerated women are pregnant while serving prison time.((Marian Knight and Emma Plugge, “The Outcomes of Pregnancy Among Imprisoned Women: A Systematic Review,” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 112:11 (December 2005), doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-0528.2005.00749.x.)) An estimated 20,000 children each year are affected by the incarceration of their mothers in Canada,((Alison Cunningham and Linda Baker, Waiting for Mommy: Giving a Voice to the Hidden Victims of Imprisonment. London, ON: Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System, 2003.)) where women tend to be held in correctional centres that are large distances from their children and families due to the limited number of correctional facilities for women across the country.

The provision of mother–child units to women in prison who have given birth to their infants while incarcerated is considered normal practice in most countries in the world. Published reports of such units exist for 22 countries, including England, Wales, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, some US states, Kyrgyzstan, Ghana, Egypt, Mexico, India and Chile.((Helen Fair, “International Profile of Women’s Prisons,” World Prison Brief (February 7, 2008), http://bit.ly/2knx0BM.))((Kiran Bedi, It’s Always Possible: Transforming One of the Largest Prisons in the World. New Delhi: Stirling Paperbacks, 2006.))((Women’s Prison Association, “Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternatives,” Institute on Women & Criminal Justice (May 2009), http://bit.ly/2hwPK0L.))

One of the reasons for keeping incarcerated mothers with their newborn babies is that it facilitates breastfeeding, which the World Health Organization reports has health benefits for the infant and new mother.((World Health Organization, “Infant and Young Child Feeding,” Fact Sheet (September 2016), http://bit.ly/1o6MEg8.)) According to international health experts, babies should be exclusively breastfed until they are six months old if possible, and then continue to be breastfed on demand until they are two years of age. Babies who are not breastfed may be at increased risk for diabetes, allergies and gastrointestinal and respiratory infections.((Health Canada, “Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants: Recommendations from Birth to Six Months,” A joint statement of Health Canada, Canadian Paediatric Society, Dietitians of Canada, and Breastfeeding Committee for Canada (2013), http://bit.ly/LTH03C.))

In addition to the well-known health and nutritional benefits, some research has shown that breastfeeding can contribute to psychosocial development((Grace S. Marquis, “Breastfeeding and Its Impact on Child Psychosocial and Emotional Development,” Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development (March 2008), http://bit.ly/1cESBkC.)) – the associated physical contact, eye contact and the quality of feeding promote mother–child attachment. However, establishing and maintaining breastfeeding on demand is not possible unless mothers and babies can be housed together with 24-hour contact.

Typically, mothers who return to prison without their babies after giving birth are prescribed milk-binding pills and are often prescribed antidepressants. In this situation, many mothers experience profound grief and debilitating guilt, despair and hopelessness. Many resort to substance use as a coping strategy. 

Mother–child unit developed to support well-being of incarcerated mothers and their babies

In 2005, Brenda asked Ruth, “As the prison physician, what is your opinion about the idea of incarcerated women who deliver babies in hospital being able to return here with their babies?” Ruth felt it was the most sensible idea she had heard in years, and she then expanded her prison medical practice to perform new roles, such as newborn examinations, breastfeeding coaching and addressing medical questions about newborns.

Through collaboration and partnership with several other ministries and community agencies, a mother–child unit was developed at ACCW based on the best interests of the child. With the support of Corrections Branch Headquarters, the ACCW health care team, correctional staff (both managers and frontline staff) and other provincial ministry personnel, it was decided ACCW could facilitate the return of mothers and babies to ACCW when recommended by BC Women’s Hospital and agreed to by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), who had final authority over the placement of the child.

The decisions to place the mother and child together at the correctional facility were made by an interdisciplinary team consisting of the key staff from BC Women’s Hospital, ACCW health care, ACCW administration and the MCFD. If the mother was Indigenous, the pertinent Indigenous communities were consulted, when applicable. The mother and her family were included in all stages of this process. The support and services that Fir Square offered the mother before and after the birth fostered the mother’s confidence in parenting and in participating in the planning of her future and that of her baby. All checks and balances were put in place to ensure that ACCW was a safe and positive environment for the mothers and babies, with the cooperation of the mothers, other incarcerated women and correctional staff.

Incarcerated women who gave birth and who were deemed by MCFD able and willing to provide appropriate parental care were allowed to keep their infants in their care while in prison. During the initiative’s duration (2005–2007), 13 babies were born to incarcerated mothers, nine of whom lived in prison with their mothers and stayed there until their mother’s release. Eight babies were breastfed for the duration of their mother’s prison stay. Fifteen months was the longest stay of any infant in prison. The babies’ health and development was monitored by the community public health nurses, ACCW health care providers and MCFD social workers.

Release planning for the majority of the mothers and babies included placement at a residential supportive residence for women with substance use histories of the Fraser Health Authority, which took mothers and their young infants. The residential placement staff aimed to facilitate the transition of these women into the community.

Being involved in the initiative with BC Women’s Hospital had a profound positive effect on the women directly involved, the correctional staff and other incarcerated women, and the ministries and community agencies who partnered with ACCW.

Mother–child unit facilitates maternal involvement

Initially, other agencies and ministries were surprised and cautious regarding the proposal of the newborn babies returning to the facility with their mothers. The team at ACCW and BC Women’s Hospital took the time and facilitated many discussions and held meetings for all stakeholders to contribute to the program’s success.

Initially, the rights of the infant to be with the mother for attachment, bonding and breastfeeding was overshadowed for some by the feeling that this “privilege” should not be afforded to incarcerated mothers. As the initiative continued, the attitudes of many began to shift from cautious and guarded to comfortable and supportive. Community agencies were willing to provide supportive services to the children and mothers within the correctional facility. The collaboration reduced the need for ACCW to develop programs and services specific to the incarcerated population.

The mothers involved expressed great joy and were grateful that they could continue to breastfeed and nurture their babies at the correctional facility. They participated in parenting classes provided by a community agency through visits by the public health nurses and the MCFD worker. They also participated in health examinations by the ACCW physician to ensure the safety and health of their babies. Several of the mothers were permitted to go out into the community on escorted passes, both before and after the birth of their babies, to participate in various programs offered by community agencies that welcomed their participation.

Other women who did not have the opportunity to be with their children had to deal with the reminder of the pain they suffered as a result of being away from their own children. Seeing the babies at ACCW triggered feelings of loss, but a general feeling of hope permeated the entire population and the atmosphere at the facility was more positive in many ways. Incarcerated women wrote about their experiences as part of a prison participatory health research project, and their writing was later published in a book titled Arresting Hope.((Ruth Elwood Martin, Mo Korchinski, Lyn Fels and Carl Leggo, eds., Arresting Hope: Women Taking Action in Prison Health Inside Out. Inanna Publications, 2014.))

Seeing other ministries and agencies support this initiative had an impact on many of the incarcerated women. Most had very little trust in government agencies due to previous negative interactions. Seeing the agencies working together to ensure the babies stay with their mothers gave them a different perspective from which to view these groups. Some voiced a new interest to work with agencies to initiate contact with their own children with whom they had lost contact, or to work to improve their own lives to make a better life for their children.

For many, seeing the mothers and babies thrive at the facility and be released into the community together continued to reinforce the feeling that this initiative was not only the child’s right but also the right thing to do for the child.

Mother–child unit upheld by BC Supreme Court

In 2008, Brenda retired from ACCW and the BC Corrections Branch Headquarters shut down the prison mother–child unit. Amanda Inglis and Patricia Block, whose babies were born after the unit had closed, became appellants in a five-year legal case that led to a BC Supreme Court hearing in May 2013. During the women’s compelling testimony, Patricia told the court that there were as many as five different people caring for her daughter while they were separated. She tried to continue to breastfeed her baby while in prison, she said, but had difficulties in doing so.

At one point, her daughter’s foster mother stopped using the breast milk that Patricia had pumped because she worried it “wasn’t good milk.” Patricia had to inform the MCFD, who then ordered the foster mother to provide the breast milk to her baby. Patricia said that pumping milk in her prison cell for her newborn baby, who was then staying with relatives, gave new meaning to the phrase “crying over spilt milk.”

In December 2013, Honourable Judge Carol Ross ruled in Inglis v. British Columbia (Minister of Public Safety) that the cancellation of the mother–child unit infringed the Charter right to security of the person (section 7) of the mothers and babies affected by the decision, and that the infringements were not in accord with the principles of fundamental justice. The ruling also held that the cancellation constituted discrimination and violated section 15(1) of the Charter, the right to equality of the members of the affected groups, namely provincially incarcerated mothers who wished to have their baby remain with them while they serve their sentence and the babies of those mothers.

The judge directed the government of British Columbia to administer the Correction Act Regulation in relation to this issue in a manner consistent with the requirements of sections 7 and 15(1), and she gave six months to provide an opportunity for the government to correct the unconstitutionality of the present situation and comply with the Court’s direction.((Inglis v. British Columbia (Minister of Public Safety), 2013 BCSC 2309 (SC), H.M.J. Ross, http://bit.ly/2jiUVk0.))

Guidelines developed to facilitate program adoption across Canada

The Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education (CCPHE) hosted a two-day working meeting in March 2014 at the University of British Columbia to generate best practice evidence-based guidelines to inform the implementation of mother–child units across Canada. Experts were invited to present during four panel discussions entitled “The Rights of the Child,” “The Correctional Context,” “Pathways and Programs” and “Evaluation.”

Thirty stakeholder organizations were invited to contribute to the writing of the guidelines by selecting delegate representative(s) to participate in the working meeting. Delegates included those from BC Corrections Branch, Correctional Service Canada, New Zealand Corrections and Women in2 Healing (formerly incarcerated mothers).

The CCPHE contracted Sarah Payne to write an initial guideline framework based on her analysis of the meeting proceedings. A “content analysis” method was used to ensure that all themes developing from the meeting data were captured in the emergent guidelines. As a final stage, international resources and research publications, which had been presented by experts as evidence during the working meeting, were reviewed.

The resulting Guidelines describe 16 guiding principles and best practices required for optimal child and maternal health inside a correctional facility, including the correctional context, pregnancy, birth, education, correctional and medical care, discharge planning and community partner engagement. Delegates from BC Corrections Branch and Correctional Service Canada, who attended the writing meeting, incorporated the Guidelines’ principles and best practices into their respective organizations’ policies and procedures.

Follow-up evaluations of the mother–child unit currently under way

The ACCW mother–child unit was established on the principle that babies should accompany their mothers back to the ACCW, which was supported by the 2013 BC Supreme Court ruling that deemed it unconstitutional to separate the two. Currently, the “new” BC provincial program and the federal program (as well as programs in the U.S.) are based on the principle that it is a privilege for the incarcerated mother rather than a right: incarcerated pregnant women have to submit an application and go through a difficult, stressful and protracted approval process.

Some infants now currently reside with their mothers in federal women’s correctional facilities across Canada. However, bringing babies to live with their mothers inside provincial correctional facilities has been slow, even though a refurbished mother–child unit opened in July 2014 at ACCW. More education and understanding about the cultural, epigenetic, legal and permanent health impacts of a decision to remove a baby at birth can help support maternal and infant health in prisons across Canada.

A 10-year follow-up evaluation of the ACCW mother–child unit that ran from 2005 to 2007 is currently under way. Through in-depth interviews with mothers whose infants lived at ACCW, this evaluation is exploring their experiences and the current health and social development of their children.

Each of the mothers interviewed to date have reported that the decision to have her baby live with her in prison transformed her life. Each woman attributed the quality and quantity of time that she spent with her baby in ACCW to making a positive long-term impact on the mother–child relationship, and each reported that she now has an exceptionally close relationship with her child. Each woman also spoke very affectionately about her child’s attributes, with kindness and a caring nature as foremost.

 


Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin is a Clinical Professor in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health and recipient of the 2015 Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case.

Brenda Tole is the former warden at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women from the time it opened in 2004 until her retirement in 2008.

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Published on February 7, 2017