Toronto

Ontario to end practice of birth alerts that's led to babies being seized from new mothers

The Ontario government says it will end "birth alerts" — a controversial practice that allowed children's aid societies to send notifications to hospitals when they believe a newborn baby may need protection.

Alerts disproportionately affects Indigenous, Black families, minister says

The Ontario government is directing children's aid societies to end the practice of birth alerts by Oct. 15. (pixabay.com)

The Ontario government is directing children's aid societies to stop sending "birth alerts" — the controversial practice of notifying hospitals about newborns they believe may need protection, which has led to babies being seized from new mothers.

These so-called birth or hospital alerts disproportionately affect racialized parents, particularly Indigenous and Black mothers, Associate Minister of Children and Women's Issues Jill Dunlop said.

The Ontario Native Women's Association applauded the announcement on Tuesday, saying Indigenous women have pushed for years for an end to the discriminatory practice.

The ministry doesn't specifically track birth alerts, Dunlop said. But in the past year, she said, 442 children were removed from their mother between seven days and 12 months of being born, with 50 per cent of those referrals coming from medical staff. 

"Not to say that every one of those cases was the result of a birth alerts, but it does provide an idea of how often newborns are taken into care in Ontario," Dunlop said.

She said Tuesday's announcement is one way that the province is fighting systemic racism in the child welfare system.

Long a source of controversy in racialized communities, children's aid societies could ask hospitals to notify them when a child is born into a family situation deemed to be high risk.

 The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls recommended last year that the practice end immediately.

Instead, the focus should shift to collaborating between organizations and families on a plan  to "keep families together," Dunlop said. She said mothers may not seek prenatal care if they are worried about their babies being seized.

Ending birth alerts called 'a vital shift'

The Ontario Native Women's Association (ONWA) said ending birth alerts "signals a vital shift towards reducing the number of Indigenous children in care of child welfare."

"Today's announcement is one step towards addressing violence and discrimination against Indigenous women in Ontario," the ONWA said in a statement.

"Assumptions about Indigenous women's ability to raise their own children are unacceptable."

The Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies also praised the government move and pledged its commitment to challenging the implicit biases at the heart of the child welfare system.

Nicole Bonnie, chief executive officer of the association, issued a statement acknowledging that birth alerts "cause harm," particularly to families who are racialized, Indigenous, low-income or living with substance abuse and mental health issues.

"We support an approach to child welfare that focuses on prevention and early intervention," she said.

"Our goal as a provincial system is to provide services that strengthen families, while ensuring the safety and well-being of the province's children and youth."

B.C., Manitoba ending birth alerts

The British Columbia government said it was ending the practice of birth alerts last year. Manitoba also promised to end birth alerts, although the plan was delayed due to COVID-19.

First Nation partners have told government birth alerts are regularly used near Thunder Bay, Hamilton and Brantford, Dunlop said, adding that Black communities are affected in Toronto and Peel region.

The ONWA told the ministry that 450 babies are seized each year as the result of birth alerts, Dunlop said.

"Indigenous women have always had the knowledge, skills and abilities to raise their families," the ONWA said in its statement. "They have an inherent right for jurisdiction over their children."

The Ontario government is telling children's aid societies to stop sending birth alerts by October 15. It says birth alerts have never been required under provincial law and have been used inconsistently. 

The ONWA says further action must involve investing in Indigenous women and community healing, including "trauma-informed prevention services like Indigenous parenting programs and wrap-around supports for mothers."

The province says it's doing a larger review of the child welfare system, including the overrepresentation of Black, Indigenous and racialized children.

With files from the Canadian Press

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