somebody’s baby    Every parent knows this: we change the moment our child is born. Becoming stronger than we thought possible---we are also far more vulnerable. We fear that our children will carelessly play their way into injury. Or perhaps a tragic twist of circumstances will truncate their potential. One of our most chilling fears even has a name: Stranger Danger - that our child will fall victim to the machinations of some isolated sociopath.  But what we don’t imagine is that our children will suffer and perhaps die alone, confused and terrified, systemically victimized by the services ostensibly designed to protect them. And yet, it happens; at this moment, there are approximately 1,800 Canadians inmates in solitary confinement, some as young as twelve years old. The practice is proven to cause severe long-term psychiatric trauma. Paradoxically, undiagnosed or under-treated mental health disorders frequently underlie the incident that lead to initial incarceration.  The link between psychiatric challenges, institutional abuse and the penal system is a slippery and well-worn slope - one with which our family has some experience. Our daughter’s struggle with multiple neurological disabilities has cast shadows over many of the silly joys of childhood, the darkest resulting from misinformed and punitive responses to moments of mental health crisis. Our daughter’s experiences have also revealed a core of brave resilience, insight and love. But while we look forward to building on these strengths as we guide her into adulthood, many families are not nearly as fortunate.  By all accounts, Ashley Smith shared many of our daughter’s qualities. Yet in 2007, nineteen year old Smith died at the Grand Valley Institute for Women in Kitchener, Ontario. At that point, she had been in continuous solitary confinement for almost a year. Over her brief lifetime, more than 1000 days were spent in segregation in federal and youth custody.  During the lengthy inquest into her death (2009-2013), many media outlets broadcast sensationalized imagery from her institutional abuse, including footage of her death, which correctional officers observed and recorded, yet did not intervene. Although this documentation ultimately served as persuasive evidence that lead to a verdict of homicide, its exceptionally graphic nature also tended to reinforce the illusion that horrific things only happen to vilified others. (In 2012, after viewing the footage, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowed to make changes to Corrections Canada’s methods, but nothing was done. Hopes have been cautiously raised with the election of Justin Trudeau, who has tasked Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould with implementing the recommendations of the inquest.)     somebody’s baby  is a reflection on the speed with which a mental health crisis may descend into criminalization and incarceration. When we discover the relative innocence of Ashley Smith’s initial infraction, throwing crab apples at a postal worker, we realize how easy it is to blame the victim.     As I began researching and discussing this tragedy with colleagues, I learned that many recalled only the horrific evidence broadcast during the inquest, depicting a young  offender  who  committed suicide . This terminology tightly circumscribes and muffles the threat the narrative poses on our sense of justice and safety. Ashley’s mother, Coralee Smith, fought and won a trial concluding that Ashley did not take her own life -- it was brutally stolen from her. She also campaigned to protect her daughter’s memory, not as an  offender , but as an individual who was barely out of childhood. Coralee Smith was, and remains, somebody’s mother.  This work aims to engage the viewer’s compassion and awareness that every life is precious and vulnerable. And everybody is  somebody’s baby .    This show would not have been possible without Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Kim Pate (Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies), Dana Bingley, (catalog essay below) and Ashley Smith’s family.    Gretchen Sankey November 2015
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   somebody’s baby  , installation at Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto 2016
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  Restoring Dignity by Bridging the Divide: Essay by Dana Bingley     I imagine a young girl on picture day, securing a shiny new barrette in her hair in an attempt to tame the strands that just won’t stay put. As adults, we grin when those rogue hairs wrestle free moments before the flash, capturing the unadulterated beauty of childhood on a wallet-sized card. Another precious moment preserved, taking its rightful place in the plastic timeline that unfolds like an accordion with such eagerness and pride. Photographs hold incredible  power —the power to transport us to another time, another place, revisiting the past and the memories intimately tied to it, the power to evoke profound emotions that help us connect with complete strangers who with each passing second feel less unfamiliar.    From cherished family photographs of a vibrant little girl to 24-hour surveillance footage archiving unspeakable atrocities in the corner of a segregation cell, images chronicling Ashley Smith’s life and tragic death were widely publicized in the media.   Although those painful images of her incarceration helped to expose institutional cruelty and inspire demands for justice, the media depictions of her experiences in many ways also served to perpetuate the stigma of mental illness and the ideology of the dangerous “other.” The negative labels used by the media—disordered, disturbed, troubled, challenging, incorrigible—fail to separate Ashley from her behaviour, making it difficult to see her as a human being with complex needs and unique abilities. These labels suggest Ashley’s actions are those of a  bad  and  broken  person, rather than indicators of need and distress triggered by the inhumane conditions of her confinement.    Just as plants need sun, soil and rain to grow, human beings require the warmth of authentic connection and to be nurtured by unconditional love. In order to flourish and bloom, youth in particular need to feel safe and secure as they try to figure out who they are and find their place in the world—to feel supported by caring adults who form an intricate network of roots that helps to keep them grounded when a storm rolls in. All of these things—care, safety and support—were torn from Ashley as she was uprooted from her loving family and condemned to solitude. Sadly, it happens all too often that individuals exhibiting behaviours that warrant compassionate care and medical attention are criminalized and unduly punished—singled out like weeds that must be separated from the delicate and docile flowers of society.    Despite decades of research on the negative effects of long-term solitary confinement, a precious life came to an end under the watchful negligence of the very system that’s charged with protecting the rights and well-being of one of society’s most vulnerable populations. Ashley’s story shines a bright light on some of the darkest corners of the Canadian criminal justice system, revealing punitive practices and deep-seated oppression hiding behind the propaganda of rehabilitation and reintegration. While Ashley’s story is important, it must be treated with the utmost care so as not to reproduce the power imbalances that contributed to her revictimization.    Graphic images of violence and suffering can be difficult to bear witness to, eliciting overwhelming feelings of discomfort from which it is only natural to try and distance ourselves. But through that disconnect we risk becoming passive spectators, allowing pity and curiosity to impede our ability to experience empathy. Gretchen Sankey has taken great care to present a narrative that invites us to think about what happened to Ashley, rather than what was “wrong ”  with her. In the absence of the explicit violence that engenders detached voyeurism, the imagery aims to de-sensationalize suffering by honouring her as a human being—somebody’s baby—worthy of love and respect. This work is not intended to be consumed as entertainment or to exploit Ashley’s anguish; rather, its purpose is to lend a voice to those who have been silenced and call upon viewers’ willingness to go to that vulnerable place where empathy resides. When we allow ourselves to experience genuine empathy, we suspend all judgment, and it is then that we realize what was once dismissed as a strong-willed weed is actually an extraordinary flower.  Dana Bingley, December 2015     Dana Bingley  is passionate about her work in the not-for-profit sector facilitating community programs that aim to support and empower youth.
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