Manitoba still apprehending First Nations newborns despite ending birth alerts last year: Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs

Although the province officially ended the practice of issuing birth alerts last year, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) says more still needs to be done so that more newborn babies aren’t taken away from Indigenous mothers in Manitoba.

In July 2020, the province announced they would no longer issue birth alerts, a policy implemented by the Child and Family Services (CFS) system to alert hospitals and other CFS agencies of a mother deemed to be “high-risk” and in need of further assessment before they could be discharged with a newborn baby.

But despite birth alerts being technically halted in Manitoba last year, AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said in a Wednesday press release they continue to see a high rate of newborns being taken from Indigenous mothers, and they want to see the province doing more to insure more mothers are leaving hospitals with their babies.

“Despite the theoretical end of the practice of birth alerts in Manitoba, First Nations expectant mothers continue to experience the apprehension of their newborn babies,” Dumas said.

“The province of Manitoba has repeatedly made statements about reconciliation with First Nations peoples, identifying prevention as key to supporting their families involved in the CFS system; but their actions with respect to newborn apprehension make those words ring hollow.”

Dumas added AMC believes the province is making decisions on when to take children from their parents and newborns from their mothers without consulting with or working with Indigenous parents, leaders, and organizations to find ways to keep more children in their homes and communities.

“This provincial Conservative government continues to make unilateral and unfounded determinations about what is in the best interest of First Nations families,” Dumas said. “These determinations result in the continuation of birth alerts, with social workers and law enforcement continuing to rip children away from their mothers at birth.”

The press release came just one day after arguments began in a lawsuit filed by AMC as well as several Indigenous agencies and one former CFS executive claiming the province should hand back hundreds of millions of dollars they believe belongs to Indigenous children in Manitoba who have been involved in the CFS system.

While speaking to the Winnipeg Sun on Tuesday morning outside the Manitoba Law Courts Building, Dumas said AMC believes the entire CFS system and the way it deals with Indigenous people and organizations needs to change in the province.

“Totally egregious things have happened to people in this institution of child welfare,” Dumas said.

“And despite all of our best efforts to bring forth meaningful solutions the provincial government and this system continues to maintain the status quo, incentivizing the apprehension of children and not doing what we need to do to keep families together, and keep people in their communities.”

With a new premier set to take power next week in Manitoba, AMC also called on whoever takes on the role to make this and other issues involving Indigenous Manitobans a priority.

“It will be an opportunity for the new leader to restart the relationship with First Nations and the province of Manitoba,” Dumas said.

On Saturday, former Health Minister Heather Stefanson was elected as Progressive Conservatives leader and first female Premier of Manitoba.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Manitoba Families pushed back against allegations that birth alerts were still in use in Manitoba.

“The practice of birth alerts ended in Manitoba on June 30, 2020. A birth alert meant that Child and Family Services needed to assess the safety of the child at birth. It did not necessarily result in the newborn being apprehended,” the spokesperson said.

“The end of birth alerts should not be interpreted to mean the end of newborn apprehensions. Infant safety will always be paramount. If it is determined an infant is not safe or can’t be made safe, CFS must become involved. Sometimes this may result in apprehension, though apprehension is always the last resort.”

The province also shared statistics that show that newborn apprehensions have gone down in recent years, as in the province’s 2018-2019 fiscal year there were a total of 289 babies who were less than four days old taken from their mothers in Manitoba, while in 2020-2021 that number sat at 101 babies taken at birth.

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

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