Commentary Human Rights

Too Close for Comfort: Baby Torn from Mother Grieving for 15-Year-Old Son

Jodi Jacobson

The infant daughter of a 37-year-old rape and torture victim living under asylum in the United Kingdom is taken from her. Why? She was deemed unstable because she was grieving the death of her 15-year-old son.

When my daughter was born almost exactly 15 years ago as I write this, I was a first-time mother who’d been through an incredibly arduous pregnancy to give birth to a much-wanted child. 

I was also a successful professional, a wife and daughter, a highly functional individual, an older sister who’d very much helped raise three younger brothers and ….a woman who’d suffered from and been successfully treated for clinical depression for many years.

That very last part, however, was what defined me–the whole of me–in the eyes of the hospital.  Some hours after giving birth, I was overcome by emotion and began crying, expressing to the nurse attending me my nervousness at being a new mom and the fragility of a new baby.  It was a normal scene, probably, for many women, whose level of exhaustion at giving birth combined with elation and a dramatic and immediate shift in hormones might lead them to experience an equally dramatic expression of emotions. 

Knowing this intellectually, I was therefore shocked and dismayed when the next thing I knew, I was being “evaluated” by the social worker to see whether it would be okay to send my daughter home with me.  There was a rather amazing leap–and here I mean in a matter of minutes after the nurse left my room–from me being hormonally teary to me being a potential basket case in the eyes of the hospital, in large part because clinical depression was marked on my record.  I immediately stopped confiding in the nurses about anything and just wanted to leave the hospital with my daughter and my then-husband and get home.  The effect was exactly the opposite of what you would want: Instead of reaching out to health professionals with concerns, I distrusted them.

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This memory was brought home to me by a story today in The Guardian about a breastfeeding mother in the United Kingdom whose newborn baby was forcibly taken from her and “put into care” for six days.

According to The Guardian:

 Verna Joseph, who has a history of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, says she was pushed to the ground, restrained by security guards, and her baby taken in full public view during a scuffle at King George hospital in Redbridge to which police were called.

She was then transferred by ambulance to Goodmayes hospital, North-East London NHS foundation trust, in Ilford, but was not told until several hours later that she was being compulsorily admitted for an assessment under the Mental Health Act.

Despite repeated pleas for news about her three-week-old daughter, Madeleine, she was not told what was happening to her, or given any opportunity to make her own arrangements for her care.

Joseph, age 37, is a mother of nine who was granted asylum in Britain following rape and torture in St Lucia.

Why was her baby taken from her? Because she had recently learned that her 15-year-old son had been killed in St Lucia on February 14th, the same day Madeleine [her new daughter] was born by caesarian section.

But she felt unable to grieve for her son because she feared the ramifications of showing normal grief:

“I was scared that if I cried too much, they would think I was depressed. A psychiatrist asked about me crying and I told him: ‘It’s natural to cry when your son has been killed, isn’t it?’ He said: ‘Yes, it’s natural to cry.’ I knew there was nothing wrong with me.”

So in grieving for her son, she was, in her own words, “left traumatised” by an enforced and irrational week-long separation from her new baby, during which she was unable to breastfeed or provide breast milk due to a lack of facilities.
Joseph told the Guardian:
“I feel very let down by the trust. They treated me like an animal. I was afraid I would never see my daughter again. I kept asking: ‘Where is she, how is she getting on?’ They told me nothing. When I got her back, six days later, she was clinging to me.”

According to Joseph’s medical notes, psychiatrist Andrew Biggs at Goodmayes concluded on the 16 March:

“I cannot find symptoms of acute mental illness of any severity sufficient to justify detaining this woman currently.” He said she had a history of illness with unstable moods and “may react badly to crises”. 

Joseph’s story is fantastic in its absurdity.

According to The Guardian, she was admitted to King George hospital on March 7th after suffering abdominal pains related to her caesarian. She left three days later as the hospital was unable to give her a room where her daughter could stay.

She returned at the hospital’s request on March 11th and was seen by five people, including a psychiatrist and two mental health social workers.

During a break in the “assessment,” Joseph said:

“I saw this man coming up to me shouting to get away from the baby. I said to him: ‘What are you talking about, it’s my baby.’ He said: ‘I’ve come to take the baby.’

“He pushed me and I fell. The two security men put my hands behind my back. I was crying and asking: ‘Why have they taken my baby?'”

So from step 1, being seen at the hospital for a medical problem to step 2, having her baby taken away without cause or warning, Joseph went from being a woman in need of medical attention to an “unfit mother.”

Cristel Amiss, of the Black Women’s Rape Action Project in the U.K., said:

“The worst thing you can possibly do, if you are concerned about a mother’s mental health, is to take her baby off her, not tell her what is happening, and not allow her to breastfeed.”

Experts point to the fact that such abrupt removal is traumatic not only for the mother but also for the infant. Morgan Gallagher, chair of Nursing Matters, said: “A three-week-old, exclusively breastfeeding baby will be traumatised by the abrupt removal of the mother. It will be further traumatised by being bottle-fed by a stranger.In these cases, the needs of the baby should come first.”  No mention in the article about the ramifications for her other children, but one can only imagine their stress as well.

In the court case against the hospital, evidence submitted rom the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Prison Service’s advisers underscore that close and frequent contact of mother and newborn is “vital” in forming an attachment.

Joseph’s lawyer, Nicola Daniel, said:

“There is a basic human right that a mother and child should not be separated at that crucial bonding time.”

But this is increasingly the way we are treating women, both here in the United States and apparently in the United Kingdom as well.  Women are first judged on their willingness and ability to bear children anytime they are pregnant, irrespective of the personal, economic, and social conditions they face. If they seek to manage or control the formation of their families, via contraception or in the case of unintended and untenable pregnancies, abortion, they are vilified.  If they show the slightest signs of humanity in terms of stress–like, say, expressing grief at the death of a son–they are apt to be immediately pathologized. If they are poor, immigrants, or struggle with addiction, they are criminalized. The less “prominent” you are, the more likely you will be subject to labeling and abuse by the system we have.  I am trying to imagine a scenario in which, like the much-touted example of former Senator Rick Santorum and his family, a single mother seeks to take home an hours-dead stillborn to grieve and is not called crazy, and yet an immigrant woman who has been raped, traumatized and tortured and undergoes a normal process of grieving for a teenage son, is jailed.

The irony is that while we are so willing to pathologize women, we are deeply unwilling to provide mental health services to those in greatest need so that they can feel real feelings and also function more effectively in our society.  That to me is the greatest pathology of all.

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