It’s a heartbreaking case: A judge mustdecide what’s best for an infant born ina mental health facility to a homelessmother.
The baby girl, placed in foster care theday after her birth, is now 11 monthsold. Her mother, a traumatized refugeestruggling with mental illness and pastdrug use, has taken parenting classes andwants to raise her daughter.
But the mom is emotionally flat,sometimes suicidal. When she’s able tosee her baby, she can’t focus on the childor give her basic care, such as changingher diaper.
The father is abusive, has a criminalrecord and wants no part in raising thechild.
In 2014, in a noteworthy case, ProvincialCourt of Alberta Judge Ted Carruthersdrew upon a growing body of evidenceabout the importance of early braindevelopment to decide whether the babywould be better off with her biologicalfamily or adopted into a new one.
Understanding the roots
The human condition—mental illness,homelessness, addictions, violence,family breakup—plays out daily inAlberta’s courts. Increasingly, peoplewho work in the legal system aretrying to understand the roots of theseproblems. They’re learning how earlybrain development affects lifelong health.
“As a community we need to be
educated so that we all understand the
core story of brain development,” says
Nancy Flatters, a non-sitting provincial
court judge who, as a volunteer, teaches
legal professionals (such as lawyers,
judges, social workers and clerks) and
parents to consider children’s brain
development while they’re settling
stressful conflicts in court.
Science tells us that when childrenhave warm, positive experiences withfamily, friends and school, the brainbuilds strong architecture. On the otherhand, if children are neglected or abusedthey can experience toxic stress, whichcan weaken brain architecture andincrease their risk of physical and mentalhealth problems including addiction,throughout life.
People within Alberta’s legal systemare taking this powerful knowledge andusing it in innovative ways.
For example, the Policy and ProgramDevelopment branch of the PublicSecurity Division in Alberta Justiceand Solicitor General, which overseespolicing in the province, began tellingthe core story of brain developmentto police officers in domestic violencetraining sessions in 2013.
“It’s an important story for policeofficers to hear, and it really resonateswith them,” says Kathleen Collins,executive director of the branch.
“We teach them to note if there are
children in the house [when they’re
responding to a domestic violence
incident], to understand what effect toxic
stress has on developing brains and to
provide resources for the family.”
Collins says one of the best
teaching tools is a four-minute video
produced by the Alberta Family
Wellness Initiative. (See the video at
albertafamilywellness.org, which is
also the basis for The Story of Brain
Development on page 6).
“The metaphors it uses, such as brain
architecture, serve and return and toxic
stress, are wonderful and everyone can
understand them,” she says.
Employees with police-based victimservice units throughout the provinceare also learning the core story. “This iswhere victims of crime are referred bypolice, and they may be traumatized bytheir experiences,” Collins says. “We’retrying to get the story and message outwherever we can.”
Legal meets healthcare
Increasingly, people employed in thelegal system are working with those inhealthcare. “We have a lot of the sameclients,” Collins says.
Many of them are repeatedly in andout of the correctional system, saysDr. Francesco Mosaico, family physicianand medical director at the BoyleMcCauley Health Centre. The centreoffers primary healthcare and health-promotion services to people in inner-city Edmonton experiencing poverty,homelessness, addiction, mental illness
The story of brain development is an
important story for police to hear, and it
really resonates with them