Teenage girls routinely put through breast exams
during psychiatric assessments in custody; Legal experts disturbed
July 19 , 2007
The Ministry of Children and Family Development has stated that breast exams are part of routine medical exams during psychiatric assessments conducted on teenage girls in youth custody (The Province, July 10, 2007). Girls as young as 13 have been put through breast exams at one inpatient psychiatric assessment unit in Burnaby, BC.
Professor Benjamin Berger, University of Victoria Faculty of Law, says it is “deeply troubling and serious” that breast exams are a part of psychiatric assessments on teenage girls in prison. He further states that, “the critical point to bear in mind is that an order for a psychiatric assessment is an exceptional incursion into the security and privacy of a young person…[T]hese orders are not carte blanche authorizations for a doctor to engage in any kind of physical examination or treatment of a young girl whatsoever.” He adds that, when a young person is ordered to undergo a psychiatric assessment for the purpose of sentencing, a doctor can only conduct exams which are directly relevant to crafting an appropriate sentence: “…I am hard pressed to imagine why a breast examination and the offer of a pap test would be logically related to gathering psychological information relevant to crafting a just sentence. Any examination that extends beyond this very specific scope is unauthorized by the court order.”
Professor Nicholas Bala, Queen’s University Faculty of Law, who has written extensively on youth justice issues, says “I am profoundly concerned about the routine performance of breast exams and pap smears on girls detained for psychiatric assessments.”
Psychiatric assessments are ordered under section 34 of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, most often for the purpose of writing reports for sentencing. As one youth criminal defense counsel explained to Justice for Girls (JFG), while such reports include passing references to youth’s health, they do not focus on a youth’s overall physical health. According to youth defense counsel, a young woman would obviously believe that she is legally required to comply with the direction of prison staff during a court ordered psychiatric assessment and thus would be unlikely to decline physical examination.
JFG has been advocating for girls’ rights in youth prisons for over 5 years, most recently as part of a federally funded 3-year project. “There is a pervasive problem of sexual violence against girls in custody because the vast majority of youth prisoners and prison staff are male,” says Annabel Webb, coordinator of the project and co-founder of JFG. “We believe that girls who have been subjected to breast examinations during court ordered psychiatric assessments have cause for legal action against the Ministry, and once they are released and we are able to communicate with them, we will make this known to them,” says Webb.
After bringing forward allegations of sexual abuse by a medical doctor during breast examinations at one Burnaby inpatient psychiatric assessment unit, JFG was banned by the Ministry of Children and Family Development from communicating with girl prisoners. Opposition Critic for the Ministry, Maurine Karagianis asks, “I want to know why the organization that blew the whistle and brought these allegations forward and is the only independent advocacy group for girls in the prison is now banned from the prison.”