Saskatchewan and Manitoba are reviewing the practice of doctors and hospitals alerting child-welfare authorities about newborns deemed to be at risk of harm because of their parents’ backgrounds, which can result in babies being apprehended.
The practice, known as birth alerts, disproportionately affects Indigenous women, some of whom are flagged because they previously had a child who was taken into care.
Not every birth alert results in a child being apprehended. But the practice has come under scrutiny in recent years after high-profile apprehensions, including one in a Winnipeg hospital that was streamed live on Facebook earlier in 2019. Birth alerts are typically issued without the pregnant women’s knowledge or consent, raising concerns about privacy issues. When newborns are taken into care, it can be days or even hours after birth.
On Monday, British Columbia announced it will stop the practice.
The reviews in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, confirmed this month by both governments in response to inquiries from The Globe and Mail, follow a recommendation from the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in June to stop using birth alerts.
Not every province has official policies related to birth alerts. But First Nations and child-welfare advocates have for years raised concerns that such measures, whether official policy or used informally by health-care providers and social workers, can traumatize women who may already be struggling with issues such as addiction, domestic violence or homelessness.
B.C. Children’s Minister Katrine Conroy said health-care providers and social-service workers would no longer share information about expectant parents without their consent.
Ministry figures provided to The Globe indicate that 52 per cent of birth alerts tracked in B.C. over a one-year period related to Indigenous mothers, despite Indigenous people accounting for 5.9 per cent of the population in the most recent census.
“I think it’s encouraging and I am really glad [British Columbia is] leading the way,” Cora Morgan, First Nations Family Advocate with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said Monday in an interview.
“I’m hopeful this will start a trend for other provinces. … Right now in Manitoba, it’s in full force. Any given day, there’s a newborn baby apprehended from the hospital. And there’s real challenges with ending the practice," she added.
The continued use of birth alerts is under review in Manitoba, a spokesperson for the province’s Department of Families said in an e-mail on Tuesday.
The review will look at ways to protect newborns and support families, the spokesperson said.
In June, a Manitoba government spokeswoman told The Canadian Press that in 2017-18, Manitoba child-welfare agencies issued 558 birth alerts for high-risk mothers, but did not have figures on how many of those resulted in apprehensions.
Saskatchewan Social Services Minister Paul Merriman told The Canadian Press in June that the province planned to keep using birth alerts, saying they were only used in “extreme circumstances” and that the end goal of any intervention was to keep families together.
This month, however, the province said those policies are under review.
“We are aware of other jurisdictions looking at their policies in this regard, and we are doing so similarly,” Leya Moore, a spokeswoman for Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Social Services, said in an e-mail on Sept. 12.
An October focus group will bring together Indigenous groups and child-welfare providers to look at how to “mobilize appropriate responses for at-risk, expectant mothers,” Ms. Moore added.
In 2018, there were 157 birth alerts in Saskatchewan, with 45 children brought into care within 30 days of birth, Ms. Moore said. The province does not track ethnicity as part of those records and so was unable to say how many alerts related to Indigenous women.
“We also very much want to stress that the majority of babies born to families where we have received a report of potential safety risks remain with their families,” Ms. Moore said.
A spokeswoman with Alberta’s Ministry of Children’s Services said the province does not use birth alerts and therefore has no data on the practice.
In Ontario, there is no policy in place about birth alerts, Geneviève Oger, a spokeswoman for Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, said in an e-mail. But some Children’s Aid Societies in Ontario have established protocols with local hospitals relating to birth alerts, she added.
Asked if Ontario would be taking any steps to ensure that parents’ information was not shared without their consent through birth alerts, Ms. Oger said such policy decisions would be up to individual Children’s Aid Societies.