Birth alerts have been axed in Saskatchewan, but what comes next?

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Birth alerts have been axed in Saskatchewan, but what comes next?
WATCH: Organizations that work with expecting parents are applauding Saskatchewan's plan to end birth alerts, but the question remains — what comes next? – Jan 27, 2021

Saskatchewan organizations that work with vulnerable families say ending birth alerts is one piece of a broken puzzle.

Expectant parents will no longer have to fear having their newborns taken from them, when birth alerts are officially axed next Monday.

Saskatchewan’s social services ministry has issued birth alerts for more than 30 years. Ministry staff flag mothers as at-risk, and have hospital workers notify them when the children are born.

Some infants have been taken from their mothers hours after birth, said Kayla DeMong, associate director of Prairie Harm Reduction (PHR) in Saskatoon.

Demong works with disadvantaged mothers, and said some refuse prenatal care because they’re scared of the healthcare and child welfare systems.

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“They’re terrified that someone’s going to take their baby away,” DeMong told Global News.

“That fear and punitive nature of our child protection system really fuels and propels women into situations that could put them at higher risk.”

Now what?

DeMong praised the ministry’s long-awaited decision, but said it’s the first step in a lengthy journey to child welfare reform.

“If we keep doing things the way that they are, nothing is going to change,” she said.

Last year, PHR’s family support program worked with 847 families, most of them low-income.

Saskatchewan must better address inequities rooted in its colonial history, DeMong said, including poverty, addiction and mental illness.

“The thing that we need most is opportunistic care, especially for prenatal women,” she said.

“Wait lists and having to go from organization to organization to get help isn’t working.”

The social services ministry said there are many services available to at-risk, expectant mothers.

“Supporting mothers by utilizing the services that already exist in community-based organizations in Saskatchewan is a priority,” ministry spokesperson Ashley Green said in an emailed statement to Global News.

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Current services don’t cut it, said Jamesy Patrick, interim director of Sanctum Care Group, which houses high-risk mothers.

Patrick wants Saskatchewan to support the development of prenatal case management teams that connect pregnant people to supports like housing and healthcare.

“There is a real gap in prenatal services for high-risk prenatals in our community,” she said in an interview on Tuesday.

Many of Sanctum’s clients are HIV positive and struggle with homelessness and substance abuse. Fifty-three women have lived in the care home, and roughly 80 per cent of them have been subjected to birth alerts, Patrick said.

Of the 76 birth alerts issued in Saskatchewan last year, 53 affected Indigenous people.

Patrick said the practice contributes to the overrepresentation of Indigenous kids in Saskatchewan’s care — 83 per cent as of last fall — but more services are required to drive that number down.

“(Ending birth alerts) is the very first step and in my view, the easiest step in rectifying a long-outstanding issue of discrimination of Indigenous women who are interfacing our health and social services systems,” she said.

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Healthcare providers must connect families to community supports, said Brooke Graham, prenatal coordinator for Kids First North and nisto ihtāwina Early Years Family Resource Centre in La Ronge.

Saskatchewan hospitals have questionnaires that assess new moms’ needs, but they aren’t always used, Graham said.

“That’s how we find out when a woman needs support,” she said.

The social services ministry said its staff will direct people with concerns about expectant parents to community support services.

“If we can help that woman find those resources,” Graham said, “we’re giving her and her baby a better chance.”

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan tops 2019 child welfare deaths, highest in recent history'
Saskatchewan tops 2019 child welfare deaths, highest in recent history

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