Saskatchewan

Saskatoon police chief apologizes for refusing young mom a breast pump while in custody

Saskatoon's police chief says officers "dropped the ball" when they refused a lactating mother a breast pump while she was being held in police custody. Lillian Desjarlais was in pain and unable to feed her son for three days. The Public Complaints Commission has ruled it was neglect of duty.

Lillian Desjarlais spent 3 days without access to a breast pump to relieve pain or to feed son

Saskatoon police Chief Clive Weighill met with Lillian Desjarlais earlier this year to formally apologize for how she was treated while in detention. The breastfeeding mother had requested access to a pump while in custody, but was refused. (CBC News)

A young Indigenous mother who was refused a breast pump while being held in a Saskatoon detention facility last year has received a formal apology from the city's police chief.

Lillian Desjarlais, 22, complained she was mistreated while being held in a police cell because she wasn't able to express milk to feed her baby, or to relieve pain and avoid infection.

Saskatchewan's Public Complaints Commission has concluded its investigation and ruled it was neglect of duty, but said no disciplinary action is required.

"This was a very embarrassing and humiliating time for her, and she is simply ready to move on," Desjarlais's lawyer, Ammy Murray, told CBC News.

"[Lillian] is a little disappointed that no specific faults needing disciplinary action were found, but she's happy that there have been some changes made."

We definitely did drop the ball on this.- Saskatoon police Chief Clive Weighill

Desjarlais has started a new job and enrolled in college, so she preferred that her lawyer speak on her behalf.

Police Chief Clive Weighill met with Desjarlais earlier this year to apologize and to describe the measures he has introduced to prevent similar situations.

"We definitely did drop the ball on this. I apologized for it," Weighill told CBC News.

Desjarlais said she was left in wet clothes in a Saskatoon police cell, like this one. (CBC News)

'It hurt a lot'

In February 2016, Desjarlais called police during a domestic dispute. Both she and her partner were arrested and placed in detention.

Desjarlais had been diligent about breastfeeding or pumping breast milk for her then-four-month-old son.

She was held in custody for 75 hours, over the weekend, without access to a breast pump. She said her breasts became painfully engorged and started leaking, and her milk eventually turned a bit greenish. She was forced to wear wet clothes.

"It hurt a lot," Desjarlais told CBC News last year.

Desjarlais was held in custody over the weekend, for a total of 75 hours. (CBC News)

Desjarlais said she requested a pump, as well as clean, dry clothes and a warm sweater. An officer gave her sanitary napkins to soak up the milk, but nothing else. She was forced to hand-express milk into a sink in the open cell.

Desjarlais said she had been instructed by her doctors to breastfeed her son, who was born prematurely. Health Canada recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby's life.

Neglect of duty

Following his investigation, the chair of the Public Complaints Commission, Brent Cotter, substantiated her claims.

He found there was a lack of documentation and a lack of communication between officers about Desjarlais's health needs during her detention.

He concluded that the failure of one or more officers to provide necessities, such a breast pump and clean clothes, and to properly document her case constituted "neglect of duty."

Cotter noted an officer in the detention unit sought advice from the on-duty paramedic and acting supervisor, but was told it "was not a medical emergency."

"[It] is very regrettable you experienced treatment which resulted in unnecessary discomfort, lack of hygiene and possible humiliation," Cotter wrote.

However, he did not conclude that the improper actions warranted formal discipline of any of the officers involved.

No malice

Weighill maintains the incident was neither the result of neglect nor malice, but admits that things were mishandled.

"The officers were acting in good faith. It's just that we had come across a circumstance we weren't prepared for," he said. "We hadn't ever had a need for a breast pump before.

"But I mean, our officers weren't being malicious … We've taken steps to make sure that won't happen again."

The milk supply dwindled, the baby started refusing the breast, and ultimately that breastfeeding connection faltered.- Ammy Murray , lawyer for Lillian Desjarlais

As a result, the Saskatoon Police Service now has a female commissionaire stationed in the detention unit at all times, performing cell checks every 10 minutes.

Blankets are provided to detainees in cells.

There is also a paramedic always on hand to respond to medical needs, and money available to purchase breast pumps or any other medical equipment.

And when an acting supervisor is put in charge, he or she will be briefed on how to handle this kind of situation.

Vindication

Ammy Murray said she wanted to see disciplinary action, but the lawyer is satisfied her client's complaints were validated.

"To have this young woman, who's never had any involvement with police before … be treated in that way was so significantly inhumane, in my opinion, something needed to be done," she said.

Lawyer Ammy Murray helped Lillian Desjarlais file a complaint to Saskatchewan's Public Complaints Commission. (CBC News)

Murray said she applauds the new policing measures, but hopes the service will also address the issue of communication breakdowns related to medical needs.

The lawyer also noted that Desjarlais's time in detention, along with subsequent child-custody issues, meant she wasn't able to resume breastfeeding her young son.

"The milk supply dwindled, the baby started refusing the breast, and ultimately that breastfeeding connection faltered," Murray said.

An assault charge initially filed against Desjarlais related to the domestic dispute has since been dropped. Weighill has written Desjarlais a letter indicating she is a citizen in "good standing."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a master's in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC

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