Child welfare apprehensions, birth alerts on the decline: Manitoba Families

The province of Manitoba which has the highest rate of kids in foster care says it’s slowly changing the way the embattled system works.

According to the province, there has been a 35 per cent reduction in birth alerts issued for moms and their newborns and an 18 per cent overall reduction in the number of child apprehensions compared to 2018.

Manitoba typically has 10,000 to 11,000 kids in foster care in any given year – 90 per cent are Indigenous.

While the decreases are unofficial as they’ve yet to be audited, it’s an early sign of progress, according to the Minister of Families Heather Stefanson.

“We have significantly changed the practices within the birth alert system so there has been a huge reduction of those,” the minister said.

Agencies are now expected to work with moms before the baby is born to ensure the home is safe and ready for the newborn, as opposed to showing up at the hospital, taking the baby, and doing the checks after.

Critics said too often, those assessments end in a high-risk designation with little to no evidence.

That’s what happened to a Winnipeg mother APTN News will call Sharon.

“Doctors and CFS all share information,” she said.

Because she was  in foster care as a teen, her health file was permanently flagged by a child welfare agency.

She didn’t know this until she had her first child in her mid-20s.

“When the baby is born, that’s when they show up at the door with a birth alert. You don’t even know there is one,” said Sharon, whose daughter was a few hours old when a social worker came to her hospital room to ask if she felt overwhelmed and needed the agency to “help” by taking her newborn.

Sharon had no mental illness or addictions and wasn’t homeless – things that could be deemed high risk and worthy of being flagged by an agency.

She said didn’t need their help but CFS took her newborn for two weeks so they could be sure.  They eventually gave the baby back but that critical bonding time was damaged.

Sharon had three more children and CFS showed up at the hospital each time – as recently as five years ago when she was well into her 30s, all because she had been flagged by a birth alert.

It’s not lost on First Nation’s Family Advocate Cora Morgan that people raised by the system, are deemed by that same system as being too damaged to possibly raise kids themselves.

“These children are ripped away and not only is it difficult on the baby, but our elders say the most violent act you can commit on a woman is to steal her child,” Morgan said.

Manitoba’s children’s advocate says on average, a baby a day is taken from hospital because of the birth alert system.

Official numbers from the ministry’s annual report next year, will show if the unofficial 35 per cent reduction is real.

A legislative review committee tasked with examining Manitoba’s child welfare system recommended that birth alerts stop.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls also called for an end to the alerts .

So far only British Columbia has complied.

Meanwhile the reduction of the number of kids apprehended from their parents, is a result of a change to the way child welfare agencies are funded in Manitoba, said the minister.

For the past 20 years, agencies got money based on the number of kids in care. Critics pointed out this gave agencies good reason to take and keep as many kids as possible.

The Transforming Child Welfare in Manitoba Opportunities to Improve Outcomes for Children and Youth report called for a dramatic shift in how the system operates including to de-incentivize apprehending children.  A shift to block funding for agencies – instead of funding them based on the number of kids they take, was a first step.

“What we found from a pilot project of eight agencies that participated in the block funding pilot is that there is a 18 per cent reduction in the apprehension of kids as a result of block funding,” Stefanson said.

While agencies were quick to condemn the funding changes Stefanson said the province is moving ahead, based on results from the pilot project.

“I’m not concerned so much about what people are saying, I’m concerned about results,” said the minister.

Michael Redhead Champagne is a volunteer with Fearless R2W, a volunteer group that does child welfare advocacy for parents. He served on Manitoba’s review committee and says while the reduction in birth alerts and apprehensions are a start, it’s not enough.

“The metric that matters to me more is the number of kids the got to go back home,” Champagne said. “That’s the number we need to increase and until the province  can tell me how many reunifications happen this year and how we’ll improve it next year, I don’t believe we’re focussed on outcomes.”

Stefanson said legislative reforms needed to spur change are stalled by impending federal child welfare changes. Bill C-92 comes into effect next month allowing Indigenous groups to co-develop with government, their own child-welfare laws that would trump federal and provincial child-welfare laws.

“There’s no plan, no vision, no accountability and they’re not reaching out to provinces whatsoever,” Stefanson said, of feeling left in the dark by Ottawa.

“I spoke with counterparts in provinces as well. There is nothing, there is no indication what kind of funding will be around this. So there’s a lot of unknowns right now and it is precluding us from moving forward with some of our child welfare changes in the province.”

While change is at an apparent stand-still, Champagne’s advocacy group continues to fill its days helping families already in the system, and those who might have to ward-off eager agencies in the future.

“We work with families to documents and create evidence of good parenting,” Champagne said. “Unfortunately the reality of the day that’s what we have to tell parents: we need you to get as much paperwork as you can as many certificates as you can as many programs completed as you can as many letters of support – evidence — anything we can do to prove and demonstrate that these parents know their children need food and beds and safe places and recreation.

“I’m really disappointed that it feels like from our perspective in community there’s less and less evidence needed on the child protection side before the agency will step in (and apprehend).”

Preparing for that to happen is the reality many families live with in the face of the booming child welfare industry, he said.

Sherwood Armbruster, a lawyer and a former foster parent also who served on the legislative review committee. He said by being the worst in the country, Manitoba should be the one who leads change by example.

“(C-92) is an opportunity for our leaders to be bold and say ‘learn from Manitoba’s mistakes,’” Arbruster said. “We have what looked good on paper but the system of devolution ended up being this Trojan horse that built these bureaucracies and infrastructure that resulted in more apprehensions, and C-92 looks like that to some people.

“If we’re going to create more agencies and more infrastructure to carry out this tragic economic development, Manitoba needs to stand up and say ‘this is what failed.’”

Since devolution in 2003, when Indigenous agencies were created to act as agents under provincial regulations, the number of children in care in Manitoba doubled.