New Brunswick has become one of the last provinces to end its use of birth alerts, a controversial practice that involves alerts being sent to hospital authorities to make them aware of “potential risks regarding the safety of an unborn child.” It can result in child welfare services removing the baby from the parent’s care after it’s born.
The practice has been criticized for targeting Indigenous parents and other marginalized groups, and the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) has recommended putting an end to them.
Birth alerts have now been axed in most Canadian provinces and territories, though they are still issued in Quebec and are under review in Nova Scotia.
In a release Friday, the government of New Brunswick said it has discontinued the practice, effective immediately, and will place more emphasis on supporting expectant mothers.
“Putting an end to birth alerts in New Brunswick is a step towards reconciliation,” said Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn in a release.
“Birth alerts have been considered controversial because they risked being seen as being discriminatory and unfairly targeting Indigenous and marginalized communities. Our government will continue to work with all New Brunswick communities and authorities to help ensure that all children are born into a safe and loving environment.”
The province said other existing protection measures for newborns will remain in place. “According to the Family Services Act, all New Brunswickers have the legal obligation to report child abuse or suspected child abuse, which includes abandonment, desertion, physical or emotional neglect,” the release said.
Bruce Fitch, the Minister of Social Development, said the elimination of birth alerts is “intended to support healing of all families and communities.”
“It is also important to focus on prevention efforts and furthering education about programs and services that are available to parents and expectant mothers, fathers and families,” he said.
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Fitch said the Department of Social Development will continue to work with stakeholders and partners to reinforce legal obligations set out on the Family Services Act concerning abuse or suspected abuse.
The release said birth parent services will continue to be offered by the department, and social workers will engage with expectant parents, with their consent, to develop a plan for the birth and subsequent care of their children.
Change ‘long overdue’
In a statement, Lynne Groulx, the CEO of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said: “Indigenous women are pleased to learn that the discriminatory practice birth alerts, which has taken newborn babies from the arms of their mothers, often on the basis of little more than racist stereotyping, will no longer occur in New Brunswick.
“The ending of this practice is long overdue, and birth alerts should never have been in place to begin with,” the statement continued.
“This move does not put families who have been subjected to them back together. But this will hopefully spare other mothers the grief of losing their children in this way in the future.”
Martha Paynter, a doctoral candidate at Dalhousie’s school of nursing in Halifax and chair of Wellness Within, has long advocated for the end of the “unethical and traumatic” practice.
“It’s extremely traumatic for the baby to miss out on that very crucial early bonding time, it interrupts and usually destroys the breastfeeding relationship and all of the benefits of breastfeeding. And it’s extremely traumatic for the mother,” said Paynter.
She said parents who have their children taken away are less likely to seek care in the future.
“So future pregnancies will be affected, and the health of future children will be affected,” said Paynter.
“You can’t trust if you are living in fear, and the act of the birth alert, and the abrupt removal of the child, keeps the family in fear.”
Instead, she wants to see more support for families to keep them together, which is the “best possible outcome” for both children and parents.
“What that will require is actual support: housing, money, food, care, and not mandatory programs that add to the burden that these families already experience,” she said.
She said the “gross overrepresentation” of Black and Indigenous children in foster care shows the practice “stems from systemic racism and colonialism” — something which must also be addressed.
“To ban it without confronting systemic racism and colonialism, internalized bias, not sure how successful it’s going to be,” said Paynter.