Do No Harm – Shoda Rackal

DO NO HARM Seminar 11 September 2018, House of Commons


Good Evening, my name is Shoda Rackal and I’m a trained Peer Supporter for new mothers and babies and I have worked on a voluntary basis for five years.

In my work we met new mothers on post natal wards and also at their homes in order to offer our support and help at this very important time for the bonding of the mother and baby. We offer words of encouragement and helped to nurture that new life.  We offer our support on how to physically hold and position the baby for breastfeeding and how mum can judge that her baby is gaining weight and thriving, and how frequently the baby will feed and sleep in those crucial first days.  We also reassure mum of baby’s changing habits and how to read baby feeding cues.  We treat each mother with the utmost respect and take into account many of the fears and questions they may have about their birth experience, and their own and their family’s expectations, which in turn amounts to a lot of pressure on a new mum.

Mum manages all this whilst adjusting to the flood of emotions and pregnancy hormones her body would be subject to, having just given birth and adjusting to the physical changes in her body and to the responsibility of a new life totally dependent on her.

A new mother is the centre of her family’s love and affection as is the new baby.  A mother’s own instinct guides her to protect and love her baby at all costs.  That means that much support is needed for mothers so they can spend as much time together to develop an INSEPERABLE bond that lasts for a child’s lifetime: when she feels tired or just needs a break and needs to hand the baby to a family member who will be vigilant watching over the baby whilst they sleep.

We would also let mum know where she could meet other mums in drop-ins to share their thoughts and have the company of other mothers coping with their young infants perhaps whilst family members are at work.  We are there to congratulate and support mothers.  A mother has to adjust to the lack of sleep which is a total change of lifestyle and continues for the months and years ahead.  Suggesting how other family members can help out also allows for a new mum’s recuperation.

My experience supporting a mother who was under threat of having her baby taken away at birth (after an older child had been taken away 18 months previously for reasons that I don’t agree with) was very disturbing and the opposite of what should have been done.  Happily we succeeded in her keeping the baby.

This mother’s natural joy of expecting and giving birth to that precious child was constantly undermined by the fear and terror of losing that baby.  She was not treated with respect from the authorities but isolated and treated as if she had committed some kind of crime.  She was deemed unworthy to give birth and to look after her own child due to a past judgement of her behaviour.

Anyone would feel depressed and angry at the injustice of such unfair power by professional women over another woman’s body.

As an asylum seeker, she only had basic English speaking skills and was subject to decisions being made about her and her child, which were often not even explained in her own language.  She spent 6 months in a residential assessment centre where she was under constant surveillance.

At the beginning she was only allowed very limited visits from her sister, and only allowed out with the baby under supervision of a member of staff.  She was monitored 24/7 to see if she made any “mistakes”, which she was terrified of doing as it could have led to her baby being taken from her.

She says:

“When they took my first child from my arms it felt like my heart was ripped apart.  I will never forget her cries and the look in her eyes.  They never gave me notice, they just came and told me they were taking the baby and me to a mental health hospital.  I couldn’t understand why it was happening. 

They took her whilst I was breastfeeding.  I think the harm done to her by being taken from me was horrendous but they didn’t say anything about that.  They wanted to have her adopted but we managed to stop that, and she is now living with her aunt.  If she’d been adopted I would never have seen her again and she would never have seen me or any of her family.  I’m happy that she’s with my sister and I know she’s happy.

When I gave birth to my second baby I was terrified of him being taken away.  I didn’t want him to go through what my first baby went through.  I was happy to go to a residential assessment centre because at least he would be with me but I was constantly worried about it. I was watched 24 hours a day on CCTV and every time the baby cried I was worried they would accuse me of something.  Every time I changed his nappy or was breastfeeding, if the baby cried or if he brought up milk, I was worried I would be accused of doing something to him.  Even putting him to sleep and covering him with a blanket I worried if I had done it well enough.  They would come into the room at night and accuse me of tampering with the CCTV camera, although I was asleep.  I had no privacy, including while breastfeeding; there was no lock on the door.

Every time I had an assessment appointment I was terrified of being accused of lying.  Even if I had lunch at my sister’s I had to cook when I got back to the residential assessment centre otherwise they would ask questions and say I had lost weight.  I was also asked why I was changing the baby’s clothes and had the baby been sick?

With my first child, I had no-one to talk to and tell how I was feeling and no-one gave me advice.  It was completely different with my second child.  I had support from the Centre, they were like a family helping me.  The Centre changed my life.  I was always sad and I couldn’t smile before as no other place I’d been to before was ready to help me and I had always been turned away.”

As a breastfeeding supporter I want to say how shocking it is that a mother and her newborn child should be submitted to such treatment.  How could anyone thrive in these circumstances?

On top of the constant mental pain of this situation this mother was denied the support and help of her family at this crucial time.  She had to endure the threat of the police snatching her child on the labour ward (they were parked outside waiting for the court order), and 24 hours TV scrutiny, fearing being told she was an unfit mother and could not keep her child.

This is physical and mental torture endured at a time when the relationship between a new mother and baby needs to be nurtured.  Despite the torture of living like this for 6 months, her baby flourished – he is one of the most content thriving little boys I know and they are both now living with their family.

Every time I see him I think that the life of this happy child could have been ruined had we not all rallied to stop it.