Mom who left newborn in toilet not guilty of child abandonment

Posted May 17, 2013 by Arthur Weinreb
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled a mother who did not know she was pregnant when she gave birth to a baby she believed was dead, was not guilty of a criminal offence.
The federal courtroom of the Supreme Court of Canada
The federal courtroom of the Supreme Court of Canada
The Supreme Court of Canada handed down its decision in the case of R. v. A.D.H. this morning. In a unanimous decision the country's top court held that in a prosecution of a person for the offence of child abandonment, the Crown must prove the element of intent. In making its decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the decisions of the trial judge and the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal.
On May 21, 2007, users of a washroom in a Prince Albert, Saskatchewan Wal-Mart store noticed a pool of blood on the floor of a stall and heard a woman in the stall. Asking if she needed help, the woman replied she didn't.
After the woman left, others entering the washroom found a baby in a toilet bowl in the stall the woman had occupied. Believing the baby was dead, they called the store manager. When the manager came in, he noticed the baby's leg twitch. The baby boy was alive. He was revived by paramedics and rushed to hospital where he was later found to be in good health.
Surveillance video from the store led to the identification of April Dawn Halkett, then 22. She was subsequently charged with child abandonment under section 218 of the Criminal Code.
At trial, Halkett testified she did not know she was pregnant. She was gaining weight but still had her monthly periods. When she was at Wal-Mart, she began to feel unwell and went into the washroom where she gave birth. She further said the baby was blue and she honestly believed the baby was dead. She refused offers of help because she was scared and tried to clean up the stall before she left.
Medical evidence adduced at trial showed that given the fact the baby was premature and the circumstances of the pregnancy and the birth, it was understandable the young woman thought the baby was dead.
The judge found the Crown had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the woman intentionally or recklessly abandoned her son. While she committed the act, the judge, in accepting her evidence as credible, found she lacked the mental element that was necessary to prove the offence. Halkett was acquitted.
The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal dismissed the Crown's appeal and that decision was upheld by the Supreme Court. The only relevant issue at trial and on appeal was the mental element required to be found guilty of child abandonment.
The government argued that the mental element required is objective. That is, whether or not Halkett's actions would have been foreseeable by a reasonable person and would her conduct constitute a marked departure from what that reasonable person would do under the same circumstances. Halkett's lawyers argued that the mental element is subjective. She had to know or had been reckless or wilfully blind to the fact that she was abandoning a live child. To be guilty, she had to know or ought to have known she was risking the health or life of a child.
Speaking for the majority, Justice Thomas Cromwell wrote, "In my view, the test, context and purpose of s. 218 of the Code shows that subjective fault is required. It follows that the trial judge did not err in acquitting the respondent on the basis that this subjective fault required has not been proved."
Not all justices agreed that the fault needs to be subjective. Justice Michael Moldaver found the mental element of child abandonment should be objective. But even under the objective test, he found the acquittal proper because Halkett held the honest and reasonable belief that her baby was already dead.
The little boy is currently being raised by Halkett's mother and Halkett sees him on a daily basis. She hopes one day to gain custody of her son.