Manitoba promises 'proactive, preventative supports' as birth alerts set to end July 1

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

Warnings from social agencies intended to flag 'high-risk' mothers have led to apprehensions in hospitals

A woman holds an eagle feather and a photo of a baby at a January 2019 press conference in support of a mother whose newborn baby was seized from hospital by Manitoba's Child and Family Services. Manitoba announced Tuesday the practice of birth orders will end by July 1. (The Canadian Press/John Woods)

A controversial practice that has led to newborns being seized from their mothers in hospital is coming to a end in Manitoba. 

Families Minister Heather Stefanson announced Tuesday that birth alerts will cease as of July 1.

"Birth alerts will be replaced with proactive, preventative supports to help keep families together in our communities," Stefanson said a news conference.

The alerts are warnings from social services agencies to hospitals, intended to flag the history of an expectant mother considered "high risk." Birth alerts can lead to a baby's apprehension by Child and Family Services, while the mother is still recovering in hospital. 

The Progressive Conservative government announced in January the alerts would end as of April, but later said that was being delayed by the COVID-19 crisis.

The province has been working with child welfare authorities and agencies to limit the use of birth alerts and instead provide "at-risk mothers with the resources and supports that they need," Stefanson said.

Four birth alerts were issued in May 2020, down from 38 alerts during the same month last year, she said.

As of July, the province will rely on agencies to support mothers who need help. 

Manitoba Minister of Families Heather Stefanson made the announcement on Tuesday. (Global)

To that end, Stefanson said the government is giving Mount Carmel Clinic nearly $400,000 to support its Mothering Project, or Manito Ikwe Kagiikwe, which helps at-risk families.

The funding will double the capacity of the program at the non-profit health centre, allowing it to support 200 families annually.

Executive director Bobbette Shoffner was emotional as she told the news conference what the investment would mean.

"The amount of women that we're going to be able to work with is the part that's hitting me the hardest," she said as she fought back tears.

Substituting apprehensions with non-judgmental programming is key to helping families heal from intergenerational trauma and helping them care for their children, Shoffner said.

"It has been proven time and time again the negative impact that comes from children being taken from their families and put into care," she said.

"The ending of birth alerts is a huge step forward in changing policies to better reflect the needs of our families."

WATCH | Manitoba to end controversial birth alerts:

Families Minister Heather Stefanson says the controversial practice will be replaced, promising a more proactive approach to supporting mothers at risk. 1:24

She said programs such as the clinic's Mothering Project offer traditional teachings and culturally appropriate resources to help vulnerable mothers struggling with substance use, homelessness, domestic violence and other issues.

Of the new funding, $350,000 will be provided on an ongoing basis to continue the expanded Mothering Project programming. A one-time influx of $40,000 will support the work of a CFS liaison who will refer mothers to Mount Carmel.

The funding will help support more young families in Winnipeg's North End, Shoffner said. At times, the program has reached its capacity.

"This means we're going to be able to do that more and in a bigger way, and that means everything to us."

Concerns about apprehensions remain

But Cora Morgan, the First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said the end of birth alerts doesn't necessarily mean the end of newborns being seized.

"I still have concerns. I still am worried that newborn apprehensions are still going to be real," Morgan told Marjorie Dowhos during an interview on CBC Radio's Up To Speed Tuesday.

"Unfortunately, not every mother is ready to parent her child when she delivers that baby, but it's important that that child … stays within family."

Cora Morgan, the First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said she hopes the end of birth alerts also brings 'a real change in the rate of newborn apprehension.' (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Her office scrambled last Friday to prevent an apprehension "not even 30 seconds after I got off the phone" with Stefanson, she said.

"Not less than four days ago, potentially another child was going to be taken," Morgan said.

"I hope that there's real changes and that there is a real change in the rate of newborn apprehension."

Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said he welcomes the end of birth alerts, which he called a "destructive and harmful policy."

"When Indigenous women and families are supported in their healing and ability to parent, outcomes for the most vulnerable children in Manitoba are guaranteed to improve over time," he said in an email.

With files from Rachel Bergen and Aviva Jacob