Decision to end birth alerts in Manitoba greeted with caution, optimism

The decision to end the decades-long removal of newborn babies from Manitoba hospitals has those working in the child welfare industry “cautiously optimistic” the move will change how services are provided in the province.

Indigenous leaders and advocates have been urging the provincial government to end the practice known as birth alerts.

The move was one of the recommendations in a report written by a committee of community experts tasked with reviewing the child welfare legislation in 2018.

Winnipeg’s Michael Redhead Champagne was part of the seven-person committee.

He’s happy the province is working to address the recommendations but questions the time it’s taking.

“I’m nervous that it seems so piecemeal. I feel like there are many things that need to happen concurrently if we’re actually going to transform the system to improve outcomes,” said Champagne.

Champagne says the decision is the right one, but has concerns about what this means for families going forward.

“We’re going to need to have a better understanding from the Ministry of Families about how risks are going to be determined, about how parents and parenting capacity will be assessed,” Champagne added.

“We need more information from Manitoba Child and Family Services (CFS) so that parents have a better understanding of what is considered a protection concern when a baby is born.”

These are concerns Daphne Penrose, the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, shares.

Birth alerts began as a way for child welfare agencies to flag mothers who were considered a possible risk to their newborns.

However, those alerts became a tool for apprehensions and for years advocates have been saying these disproportionately affect Indigenous women and children.

Penrose says in theory birth alerts are supposed to be a way for social workers to make sure mothers are getting the support they need.

At the end of the day, she believes good social work is going to make the difference.

“Things will change when workers are working with families differently and in a way that is really addressing what’s going on with the family,” said Penrose.

“There are times when some parents are unable to safely parent and then how do you activate those places? All of that work should be done beforehand.”

At the province’s official announcement Friday Families Minister Heather Stefanson recognized birth alerts weren’t working the way they were designed to.

“Really, it is preventing pregnant moms from seeking the help that they need to put together birthing plans,” she told reporters.

READ MORE: APTN News was first to break the story about Manitoba ending birth alerts 

Many Indigenous leaders welcomed the province’s decision.

“All expectant mothers are entitled to prenatal care and should not feel afraid to get the medical assistance they require for a healthy pregnancy and birth,” Brokenhead Ojibway Nation Chief Deborah Smith said in a written statement.

“Families are the foundation of healthy communities and healthy Nations.”

Recently, the Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO) called for the development of a safe, culturally appropriate alternative to the birth alert.

“We recognize that many of our young families and first time parents require support, resources and healthy options in which to raise their children,” said SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels.

Daniels added the move to end the alerts should be done immediately instead of April 1, as the province announced.

But Stefanson said the child welfare system needs some time to work with other industries to make sure “kids don’t fall through the cracks in the meantime.”

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Garrison Settee called the action of birth alerts “inhumane.”

“It has been devastating for families. It has been devastating for mothers, and to see the end of these birth alerts, I think, is a positive step forward in how CFS is handled in this province,” Settee said.

One couple, APTN News cannot name because their child remains in care after being apprehended at birth, said the decision won’t help their family but it may help another.

“It’s one step closer to righting the wrongs that have been done and for that I’m happy,” said the mother. “Hopefully, this means families can stay together now.”

“It is almost a slap to the face at this point, but it is a win nonetheless and I know it will help many others,” added the father.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Families said 281 birth alerts were issued from April to December 2019. That is a 38 per cent decrease compared to the number of birth alerts issued by the same time last year.

The province estimates 500 birth alerts were issued annually before then.

While the province hopes this move decreases the number of kids in care, it doesn’t mean apprehensions will stop completely.

“If a child is not in a safe situation those apprehensions will take place. We need to ensure the safety of children first but there was no evidence of birth alerts increasing the safety,” Stefanson said.

Reporter / Winnipeg

Brittany joined the APTN news team in October 2016. She is Ojibway and a member of the Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba. Before coming to APTN, she graduated with a joint degree in communications from the University of Winnipeg and Red River College.