Manitoba

Manitoba to end birth alerts system that sometimes leads to babies being taken

Manitoba Families Minister Heather Stefanson announced Friday the province will end its controversial birth alerts program by April 1.

Focus will be on keeping mothers and babies together, families minister says

Manitoba is putting an end to the birth alerts program starting April 1, Families Minister Heather Stefanson says. (HTeam/Shutterstock)

Manitoba will end its controversial birth alerts program by April 1, Families Minister Heather Stefanson announced Friday.

Birth alerts are warnings from social services agencies to hospitals, intended to flag the history of a mother who is considered "high risk." The alerts may lead to a baby being apprehended in the hospital by Child and Family Services.

"Moms are hesitant to seek out the help they need because they're afraid their kids are going to be apprehended when they give birth in a hospital," Stefanson said Friday. 

"What we want to do is end those birth alerts to ensure moms are seeking the help they need in the community, so there's more of a chance for keeping those families together in the end."

Stefanson says there's no evidence the decades-old birth alerts program protected children. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

The province says its decision comes after recommendations from the child welfare legislative review committee, as well as Indigenous leadership, including the Southern Chiefs' Organization, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said it's a significant step forward.

"We were very, very excited to hear the news," he said. "We applaud the province for listening to us."

Watch | MKO grand chief reacts to the decision:

MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee talks about how happy he is to see the end of birth alerts. 1:07

Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said in a news release he welcomes the announcement but wonders why the change is not immediate.

"Our children are most resilient when they are surrounded by family and community, not by strangers in emergency shelters and foster care," he said.

Stefanson said the process of doing away with the program will take a few months.

"This has been around for decades, and it takes time to put the CFS system to work with the health-care system to make sure we put all the mechanisms in place to make sure kids don't fall through the cracks in the meantime," she said.

Manitoba has the highest per capita rate of children in care in Canada, with an average of approximately one newborn being apprehended every day.

The alerts aren't doing what the system intended, Stefanson said.

"They were originally put in place to increase the safety of children. We found no evidence that was taking place," she said.

Harming Indigenous families: advocate

Michael Redhead Champagne, a member of the child welfare legislative review committee, said the system negatively impacts Indigenous families.

"There are many young people I am connected to who say they're afraid to even have children because they've been in child welfare," he said.

"They're afraid that if they have kids, it doesn't matter how great of a parent they are, if they're Indigenous and they've been in child welfare, CFS is going to be triggered by a birth alert and they are going to have to fight to keep their own child."

Shaylese Monkman is relieved the birth alert system is being scrapped. She was nervous her children Anton, left, and Anastasia, right, would be apprehended by CFS because of a domestic incident with her former partner. (Submitted by Shaylese Monkman)

The committee released a report in September 2018 calling for an end to birth alerts and for the program to be replaced by "community-based and culturally safe services to identify and assist at-risk parents during and after pregnancies."

"People already don't trust the child welfare system and for good reason. Birth alerts make people have that same sentiment and mistrust towards the health-care system as they do toward the child welfare system," Champagne said.

"It reduces the likelihood that a parent is even going to ask for help, should they need it."

For Winnipeg mother of two Shaylese Monkman, the news is a relief. She was the subject of a birth alert when her son was one month old. It was issued by her social worker to the hospital after a domestic incident with her former partner.

Michael Redhead Champagne sits on the child welfare legislative review committee., which has called for an end to birth alerts. (CBC)

When she got pregnant with her daughter, Anastasia, she was worried her baby would be apprehended.

"I almost wanted to hide my pregnancy, but I knew that would've been bad because eventually they were going to find out," Monkman said.

"I was at the point where I almost didn't want to continue with my pregnancy because I knew there was going to be a birth alert on me."

That alert was eventually lifted and she's now caring for both her children.

The controversial practice of birth alerts and apprehensions came under scrutiny in the past.

In a high profile case, a video of a 10-week-old baby girl being apprehended by Manitoba child protection workers was shared widely on Facebook.

Watch: Mother reacts to CFS workers apprehending a newborn baby:

This is a clip of a Facebook video shot on Jan. 10, 2019 that went viral. It shows police and CFS workers apprehending a newborn. CBC has blurred the video due to a law preventing the identification of the children in care. 1:12

Winnipeg child protection workers seized the baby because of the mother's substance use and mental health issues, CFS workers said in affidavits for the hearings.

But the mother said at the time she was "blindsided" by the apprehension, because she'd made arrangements to have her aunt take guardianship.

Two months later, the baby was returned.

Stefanson said the province will direct mothers to other agencies but didn't divulge details.

"We're here to help you. Please come forward. There's many organizations — community grassroots organizations — that are there to help," she said.

Although the goal of ending birth alerts is to keep families together and improve the safety of children, sometimes children will still be removed from a home, Stefanson said.

"We will always put the safety of kids first. If a child is not in a safe situation, those apprehensions will take place."

More to be done

Cora Morgan, the First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, thinks the move is a good step, but is skeptical.

"It's one thing to end the practice of alerting all the health-care system and the agencies that potentially mothers are unfit to parent. It's another thing to end the practice of taking their newborn babies," she told CBC News.

Cora Morgan, a family advocate, says First Nations should be involved in redesigning the child welfare system. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

"So I think that this is a step in the right direction but it also needs to go further."

Morgan also hopes First Nations leadership will be involved in redesigning the child welfare system in the province.

"I think it's really critical that they need to involve us and they need to build trust to be able to ensure that our families are actually participating in engaging these services," she said.

"It can't be just another way that Manitoba imposes something different on our First Nations people."

Watch: Minister explains why Manitoba is ending birth alerts:

Manitoba Families Minister Heather Stefanson says the province will end its controversial birth alerts program by April 1. 0:48

About the Author

Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Find her on Twitter at @r_bergen or email her at rachel.bergen@cbc.ca.

With files from Bartley Kives and Angela Johnston