British Columbia

B.C. ends 'birth alerts' in child welfare cases, but advocates say it's only first step

The B.C. government is ending a controversial practice that allowed hospitals and child welfare agencies to flag mothers deemed to be high-risk without them knowing.

Indigenous groups say more needs to be done to stop child apprehensions

B.C.'s minister for children and families says birth alerts are used by a number of provinces and territories, but B.C. is ending the decades-old practice effective immediately. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The B.C. government is ending a controversial practice that allowed hospitals and child welfare agencies to flag mothers deemed to be high-risk without them knowing, but advocates say the move doesn't spell the end of child apprehensions.

So-called hospital or birth alerts have often led to babies being seized from mothers just days after they were born. The alerts have been mainly used in cases involving marginalized women, including a disproportionate number of Indigenous women, the province said in its announcement Monday.

"We acknowledge the trauma women experience when they become aware that a birth alert has been issued," said B.C. Minister of Children and Family Development Katrine Conroy in a written statement.

Conroy said the province is changing its approach in cases where children might be at risk. Instead of alerts, she said the province will collaborate with parents expecting a child to keep newborns safe and families together.

The announcement comes after repeated calls from Indigenous communities and organizations to end birth alerts, which are still used in a number of provinces and territories.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women said the practice is racist and discriminatory, and a "gross violation" of the rights of a mother and child.

'Life-altering' trauma

Patricia Dawn is founder of the Red Willow Womyn's Society, which helps Indigenous mothers in B.C.'s Cowichan Valley with child apprehensions. She said birth alerts leave expectant mothers in a constant state of stress and anxiety.

"When she's in that state, it generally affects the child. And then to go in and give birth and have the baby removed within four to six days, that trauma is life-altering for good," Dawn said. 

Dawn said the move is progress, but that more innovative measures are needed to support Indigenous mothers. Her group is piloting an Indigenous-run facility for single moms that will offer housing and supports.

In a statement, the First Nations Leadership Council in B.C. applauded the end of birth alerts, but said it does little to address systemic and institutional racism toward Indigenous families and children. 

"Once a mother has given birth, there is nothing to stop a report and subsequent removal," said Cherryl Casimer with the First Nations Summit Task Group.

"The [council] 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."

Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau questioned why it took the government two years to make the change, citing repeated newborn apprehensions in her Cowichan Valley riding.

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