Social workers in British Columbia announced that they would stop issuing birth alerts on September 16, 2019, replacing the controversial practice with “collaborative, rather than involuntary” supports, according to the B.C. government.
But trust remains a barrier for Indigenous people who are expecting babies and in need of support — because of systemic racism, says Mary Teegee (Maaxw Gibuu), executive director of Carrier Sekani Family Services.
In B.C., social workers used to issue birth alerts to hospital staff when they felt an expectant parent may put their newborn at risk. These alerts involved the sharing of an expectant parent’s personal information, without their consent. The hospital staff would then notify social workers once the baby was born.
“The birth alert was an absolutely, like, a really blunt instrument that was causing damage when separating mothers and babies,” says Teegee, who is also the Chair of the Directors Forum for B.C.’s Delegated Aboriginal Agencies.
According to government records obtained by IndigiNews, in B.C., birth alerts resulted in infants being apprehended 28 per cent of the time. In 2018, 58 per cent of parents subjected to birth alerts in B.C. were Indigenous.
While birth alerts may have been formally discontinued in B.C., their legacy — as part of a broader health care system that systemically discriminates against Indigenous people — continues to impact Indigenous life givers.
“Systemic racism impedes the woman’s ability or desire to seek help because they are concerned about losing their children because of birth alerts,” says Teegee.
“There are no longer birth alerts in B.C., but what exact concrete steps have been taken … to make sure that no baby falls through the cracks?”
Voluntary supports for expectant parents
In B.C., expectant parents can access a range of voluntary supports — if they ask for them, says a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD).
“If an expectant parent requests support services from the ministry, or another person requests services on their behalf, a social worker will offer to meet with them and develop a Support Services Agreement,” writes the spokesperson in an email to IndigiNews.
These agreements are “completely voluntary,” says MCFD, and may include: in-home support, such as homemaker services, parenting programs, counselling, supports for individuals experiencing domestic violence, and referrals.
However, Teegee says access to these preventative supports is compromised by a “breakdown of trust with the health system and with MCFD.”
“Even with the support that we do have, because of systemic racism, because of the impacts of residential school … and all of these different multifaceted issues, often times the young mothers are not feeling comfortable to get medical attention or to get care,” she says.
Sonia Furstenau is the MLA for Cowichan Valley, as well as the leader of B.C.’s Green Party. She says many Indigenous parents have come to her office with concerns about the child welfare system.
“Asking parents to reach out to seek voluntary supports — when historically and in the present that can result in the child being removed — there is a lot of work that needs to be done before the system can work that way,” says Furstenau.
The ministry is aware that “parents and expectant parents may fear or distrust government authorities or services, including health and child welfare services,” wrote an MCFD spokesperson in an email to IndigiNews.
“Replacing birth alerts with a system that provides voluntary support services that meet needs and prevent removals is one important way to help break down that fear and build trust,” the spokesperson wrote.
He added that the number of Indigenous children in care in B.C. is at “its lowest point in 20 years,” while acknowledging that “there is still an overrepresentation of Indigenous children and youth in care in B.C.”
Due to the ongoing impacts of colonial policies and systemic racism, Indigenous children represent just over two thirds of all kids in care in B.C., despite the fact that Indigenous kids only account for about 10 per cent of the total population of kids under 14 in B.C.
“This is unacceptable, and together with families, communities and partners, the ministry is working to change that,” the spokesperson wrote.
In recent years, as part of the ministry’s effort to build trust with Indigenous families, in addition to ending birth alerts, MCFD has “made legislative changes to focus on better supporting families to safely stay together” and “worked with individual First Nations and the federal government to sign agreements that will ultimately see Nations exercise their inherent jurisdiction over child and family services,” he wrote.
In addition, MCFD has “boosted the monthly rate given to extended family members caring for young relatives to help cover costs for children in their care, keeping kids connected to their families, communities and cultures.”
More funding needed for preventative services
Beyond building trust, the provincial government needs to provide more funding for preventative services, says Teegee.
“The province needs to fall in line with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal recommendations when it comes to paying for prevention,” she says.
The tribunal’s 2016 ruling found that First Nations children were being discriminated against through the federal government’s delivery of First Nations Child and Family Services [FNCFS].
The tribunal found that the funding mechanism for child and family services wasn’t set up to deliver on a community’s actual needs, and it actually created “incentives to remove children from their homes and communities.”
According to Teegee, even in the wake of this landmark ruling, the provincial government is still not providing enough funding to cover the actual cost of preventative services.
“Most of the funding is formula-based and falls far short of what is required,” she says, pointing to urban Delegated [Aboriginal] Agencies in particular as an example.
“They’re strictly dependent on provincial funding and they’re not able to pay for the actual need of prevention or the actual need of whatever is required by that family.
“Our expectant mothers and families deserve natural and structured supports, Indigenous-led child and family prevention programming, and high-quality public health nursing to serve overall healthier life trajectories,” Teegee says in an email.
“There has to be so much more money.”