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Manitoba Families Minister Heather Stefanson says birth alerts will be discontinued in April.

John Woods/The Canadian Press

The Manitoba government is ending a practice that has allowed hospitals to notify child-welfare agencies about new mothers deemed to be high risk.

“We need to ensure the safety of children first,” Families Minister Heather Stefanson said Friday.

“But there was no evidence of birth alerts increasing the safety, so that’s why we are doing away with them.”

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The alerts have notified hospitals and child-welfare agencies that there should be more of an assessment before a newborn is discharged to a parent deemed high risk.

The government said that from April to December of last year, 281 birth alerts were issued. And there were about 500 alerts annually in previous years.

Provincial statistics also show that newborn apprehensions occur, on average, about once a day.

There are about 10,000 children in care in the province and about 90 per cent are Indigenous.

Stefanson said a review of the practice showed that birth alerts were discouraging expectant mothers and families from reaching out for prenatal support.

“They are afraid that their kids are going to be apprehended when they give birth in a hospital.”

She said provincial child-welfare standards will be updated to remove references to birth alerts, which are to be discontinued in April.

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All Manitobans will still have to report if they believe a child is at risk and, if that’s so, the child will still be apprehended, Stefanson added.

The decision by the Progressive Conservative government is a step in the right direction but could have happened sooner, said Opposition NDP legislature member Bernadette Smith. Her private member’s bill to end birth alerts, introduced last May, was defeated.

She said eradicating the practice has been important to her because she believes her sister, Claudette Priscilla June Osborne-Tyo, was traumatized when her newborn was seized at birth. Osborne-Tyo vanished from Winnipeg in 2008.

“We feel that if that wouldn’t have happened, Claudette would probably be here today.”

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Southern Chiefs Organization and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents northern Manitoba First Nations, had all called for birth alerts to stop. A national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls echoed the demand.

British Columbia announced it was ending the practice last September.

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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.”

Last year, a video surfaced on social media showing a newborn baby girl being taken out of the arms of her crying mother by police and social workers. The seizure was broadcast live on Facebook by the mother’s uncle.

Documents filed in court said child-welfare agencies had been involved with the mother prior to the birth and hospital staff had suspected she was intoxicated. The mother disputed the allegation.

The documents said the mother was honest with social workers during her pregnancy about concerns with addiction and had asked about having family care for the infant.

A judge ruled weeks later that the woman’s aunt would have guardianship of the baby.

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First Nations leaders said the video showed a child-welfare system biased against Indigenous people.

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.”

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