The Manitoba government is ending the controversial practice of sending out birth alerts for expectant mothers who are considered to be high risk.
In a release on Friday morning, Families Minister Heather Stefanson confirmed the government will stop the practice effective April 1, saying a review found no evidence to prove birth alerts increase the safety of children.
“To build a relationship with an at-risk mother and connect her with the programs and supports she needs, first we need to build trust,” said Stefanson in the release.
“Birth alerts are having the opposite effect, discouraging moms and families from reaching out at a time when we most want to work with them.
“This decades-old practice will end in Manitoba as part of our commitment to transform the child welfare system and connect families with community-based supports and services.”
Birth alerts are issued by Child and Family Services agencies and notify hospitals of the need for further assessment before a newborn is discharged into the care of a parent who has been assessed as “high-risk.”
Birth alerts sometimes result in infants being taken into child welfare almost immediately after birth due to safety concerns.
Statistics previously provided from the Manitoba government show newborn apprehensions occur, on average, about once a day in the province.
There are about 10,000 children in care in the province, and about 90 per cent are Indigenous.
A Manitoba Families spokesperson said 281 birth alerts were issued between April and December 2019. In past years, the province estimates 500 birth alerts were sent out annually.
“It is important to note that the presence of a birth alert does not automatically result in a child being taken into care, and that children can be taken into care without a birth alert if they are at risk of harm,” the spokesperson wrote in an email Thursday.
The province does not have statistics that show the number of birth alerts correlated with children in care.
“However, we can provide a statistic on the number of infants aged one month or less that were taken into care, which was 340 in 2018-19,” the Manitoba Families spokesperson wrote.
The government said the provincial child welfare standards will be updated to remove references to birth alerts “and clearly state expectations for a stronger focus on building voluntary partnerships with parents to address their strengths and needs.”
That may include the creation of a safety plan, followed by referrals to existing community, cultural and health-care services as needed, the government release says.
“Our priority is to help keep families together and reduce the number of children in care,” said Stefanson in the release.
“We are shifting our focus toward better supports for expectant mothers including early interventions, reunification and better planning.”
Stefanson said the government has been working with child welfare authorities, the health-care sector and other agencies to be ready to move away from birth alerts by April 1.
The move was recommended by the Child Welfare Legislative Review Committee and comes after British Columbia ended the practice last September.
Indigenous leadership, including the Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO), Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, have also called for an end to birth alerts.
“What B.C. has done is a great example that the rest of the country needs to follow suit on,” SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said when the province ended the practice.
“Our mothers and children need to be supported, support in keeping families together.”
NDP MLA Bernadette Smith (Point Douglas) told 680 CJOB the end of birth alerts is a step in the right direction, and she has experienced the impact apprehension of a newborn can have first-hand.
“It’s something that we’ve been pushing for a long time,” said Smith.
“My sister’s child was apprehended at birth, and that really spearheaded her going back to addictions after being in recovery. We think had that not happened, she’d probably be here today.”
Smith’s sister Claudette Osborne-Tyo went missing in 2008 at age 21. The MLA said she was under a birth alert herself as an underage mother, but was fortunate because she had supports in place and her son wasn’t apprehended.
Many families, she said, who want to give their children similarly loving homes, aren’t quite as lucky.
Smith said the tragic case of Tina Fontaine – a 15-year-old girl who was found dead in the Red River in 2014 – is a prime example of the negative impact Manitoba’s child welfare system can have.
“Tina’s not with us today. She went through many systems, she was failed, and we can’t afford to keep doing this.
“Children’s lives are at risk and families are being torn apart, and communities are being affected – not just short-term, but long-term.”
Cora Morgan, the assembly’s First Nations family advocate, said she is encouraged by the government’s decision.
“What’s most important to us is the end of the practice of newborn apprehension,” she said. “It’s one thing not to put a birth alert on our mothers. It’s another thing to ensure that their newborn babies aren’t being taken at the hospital.”
Removing a newborn from a mother is devastating to the child and the parent, Morgan said. She is cautiously optimistic the change will result in Indigenous families receiving more support to stay together.
“One baby is too many; one birth alert is too many,” she said.
“I just hope that this isn’t going to be replaced with some other mechanisms of flagging our mothers.”
— With files from Erik Pindera and the Canadian Press