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Ontario's Associate Minister of Children and Women's Issues Jill Dunlop, seen here at legislature on June 25, 2020, told The Globe that the government is issuing the directive as part of efforts to address systemic racism in the province’s child-welfare system.Steve Russell/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government has issued a policy directive that orders children’s aid societies in the province to cease the controversial practice of issuing birth alerts.

Birth alerts are notifications issued by hospitals in the province regarding an expectant parent when the societies believe the child may be in need of protection after delivery.

The alert prompts the hospital to contact the society when the baby is born regardless of whether hospital staff have independently developed concerns regarding a parent’s ability to care for their infant.

Jill Dunlop, Associate Minister of Children and Women’s Issues, told The Globe and Mail that the Ontario government is issuing the directive as part of efforts to address systemic racism including in the province’s child-welfare system.

Child protection services in the province are delivered by children’s aid societies, Ms. Dunlop said, adding that birth alerts are not required under any provincial legislation or policy.

The ministry does not track their use specifically, she added, but she said in the past 12 months 442 children were removed from their mother within seven days of birth and their first birthday, and that 50 per cent of referral sources were from medical staff at a hospital.

The government heard through consultations with First Nations organizations that birth alerts have regularly affected members of communities particularly near Thunder Bay, Hamilton and Brantford, she said.

“We know it is unacceptable,” Ms. Dunlop said. “This is why we are ending the practice across the province.”

She said the government has also heard from families that birth alerts cause trauma, including to children, adding that she hopes other provinces will end the practice.

Provinces such as British Columbia and Manitoba have also put an end to the practice of birth alerts that have been the subject of concern from advocates and the national inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Last June, the inquiry, among other things, called upon provincial and territorial governments and child-welfare services to put an immediate end to the practice of “targeting and apprehending infants (hospital alerts or birth alerts) from Indigenous mothers right after they give birth.”

In January, Manitoba announced the end of birth alerts, and B.C. said in September, 2019, that it would end the practice immediately, citing the call from the inquiry.

In a statement, B.C. conceded at the time that birth alerts were primarily used for marginalized women and disproportionately for Indigenous women.

The directive from Ontario’s assistant deputy minister David Remington says the intent of the new policy order is to provide guidance on ceasing the practice in the province and to ensure there is collaboration with local hospitals, prenatal and postnatal services and other health care professionals.

Among the new requirements, societies must halt the practice by Oct. 15 and prepare to do so in the interim. Societies also must confirm in writing to the ministry that it has implemented requirements by that month.

The Ontario Native Women’s Association has told the government that 450 Indigenous families a year will benefit from the ending of birth alerts based on the programs they administer and sites they have, Ms. Dunlop’s office said.

The province’s child-welfare system has also been the subject of consultations since last August, including with youth who have been in care, family members and organizations, the minister added.

She said that “fundamental change” will be announced in the coming weeks, adding that the review of the child-welfare system includes the overrepresentation of Indigenous, Black and other racialized children and youth.

The government is focused on prevention and early intervention and working with families about services they receive, she added.

“We know that birth alerts do the exact opposite [with families],” Ms. Dunlop said. “This is a key starting point for us.”

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