Birth alerts discontinued in BC

Sonia Fursetenau
Sonia Fursetenau

THE Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) on Monday announced it will stop using birth alerts, a practice described by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ final report as “racist and discriminatory and a gross violation of the rights of the child, the mother, and the community.”

“Removing birth alerts from accepted practice within MCFD is an important step to ensuring families stay together for the well-being of all family members involved,” said Sonia Furstenau, MLA for Cowichan Valley and B.C. Green spokesperson for Children and Family Development. “But this change is long overdue.

“Birth alerts have long been recognized as damaging and violent. They target women and infants at the most vulnerable and critical moment of their lives. The evidence is overwhelming: when we separate moms and babies, we are creating long-term problems for both of them. The best way to support infants is to support families by ensuring parents-to-be receive prenatal services and preventive care.

“This change, evidently, did not require legislative amendment. It simply required the elimination of a form. So why did the ministry not prioritize this procedural change? Why was it not made two years ago? How many expectant mothers spent what should have been a time of joy, instead in terror and in hiding? How many newborns have been taken from their mothers during these past months, justified by a policy the ministry is now recognizing as racialized, traumatizing, and ineffective?”

Since the NDP government has taken office, reports have been made of attempted seizures of infants as young as 90 minutes old from two first-time parents at a Kamloops hospital, and there have been repeated newborn apprehension cases in MLA Furstenau’s Cowichan Valley riding. When a 3-day old infant was taken from their Huu-ay-aht mother without explanation in 2018, a provincial court judge overturned the Ministry of Child and Family Development’s sanctioned apprehension and ordered the mother reunited with her baby.

Fursetenau said: “These are examples of deeply damaging actions on the part of government. We need to recognize that the humanitarian crisis of Indigenous child apprehensions will not be stopped by tinkering around the edges of a very broken, non-evidence based system. I will continue to work tirelessly to prioritize this issue, amplify the voices of those affected, and support those in my community who are working towards solutions

“Increasingly, Indigenous and First Nations communities are asserting their inherent rights and jurisdiction over their children. This government needs to recognize this, and end its colonial practices.”

Background: 

* In British Columbia: 

– Of the nearly 6,500 children in government care, two thirds are Indigenous. 

– 68 per cent of Indigenous children under the age of 14 are in foster care, according to Census Canada 2016. 

– Cowichan Region is home to B.C.’s largest Indigenous population. 

– Summer 2018, the Ministry of Child and Family Development’s Duncan office reported about 78 per cent of the 275 kids in care were Indigenous. 

* In Canada: 

– Only 7.7 percent of the child population are Indigenous, but they account for 52.2 per cent of children in foster care, according to Census Canada 2016. 

– This means 14,970 of the 28,665 foster children in private homes under the age of 15 are Indigenous.

* Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Inquiry Report cited serious concerns with birth alerts.  MMIWG labeled it an act of violence and called for an end to its practice. 

–  “We call upon provincial and territorial governments and child welfare services for an immediate end to the practice of targeting and apprehending infants (hospital alerts or birth alerts) from Indigenous mothers right after they give birth.” (MMIWG Calls for Justice, 12.8)

MEANWHILE, the First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) applauded the Ministry of Children and Family Development for their decision and announcement that they will be ending the longstanding practice of “birth Aalerts,” but added that it is clear that this is only the beginning of what is necessary to end the traumatizing practice of hospital removals for First Nations children and families.

“For decades we have seen our children stolen from their families as a direct result of colonial and institutional racism,” said Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, Secretary-Treasurer of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “This practice began with the onset of the residential school system in which children were often ripped from their mothers’ arms, and the practice has continued in today’s child welfare and healthcare systems with disproportionately high rates of apprehension at birth. Before a First Nations mother had even given birth, hospital alerts allowed for her to be deemed unfit and for her baby to be removed hours after leaving her womb. Ending this practice is a positive step towards the change that is needed, including the meaningful and timely transition to Indigenous jurisdiction over children and families”.

The practice of birth alerts, also known as hospital alerts, would allow for a flag to be placed on an expectant mother if she was deemed to be “high-risk”. This communication would happen between the child welfare and health authorities, typically without the consent of the mother, placing an alert on her hospital file which would ensure the ministry be called once she gives birth. This practice has been found to disproportionately affect Indigenous women and led to the FNLC and others advocating that this practice immediately be stopped.

The National Inquiry on MMIWG further affirmed that this practice disproportionately impacts Indigenous women and demanded it stop, as is reflected in Call for Justice 12.1 which states: “We call upon provincial and territorial governments and child welfare services for an immediate end to the practice of targeting and apprehending infants (hospital alerts or birth alerts) from Indigenous mothers right after they give birth.”

Cheryl Casimer, First Nations Summit Task Group, stated, “There must be processes and resources put in place to ensure that First Nations children are not separated from their mothers. This includes prenatal and prevention services, but also post-natal services that are focused on keeping families together. This amended policy will stop the practice of birth-alerts for expectant mothers but does little to address the ongoing systemic and institutional racism that exists for First Nations children and families. Once a mother has given birth there is nothing to stop a report and subsequent removal. The FNLC calls for a cross-ministerial approach to ensuring that all measures are taken to keep newborn infants with their mothers and to ensure that the maternal-child bond is preserved and protected.”

“We have been advocating for these necessary changes for a long time,” said BCAFN Regional Chief Terry Teegee. “We applaud the Ministry of Children and Family Development for responding to this call and taking the steps necessary to see this practice stopped in BC.  We will continue to focus our advocacy on seeing the full implementation and adoption of An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families, which places priority on prevention services for our children and families.”  

The First Nations Leadership Council is comprised of the political executives of the BC Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN), First Nations Summit (FNS), and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC).

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