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B.C. ends controversial policy that removes newborns from families

Last Updated Sep 16, 2019 at 7:05 pm PDT

FILE: The BC Legislature in Victoria. (Martin MacMahon, NEWS 1130)

"Birth alerts have been primarily issued for marginalized women and, disproportionately, Indigenous women," Conroy says

She says the changes are effective immediately, and there are safeguards in place to keep children safe

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) – The British Columbia government has decided to stop a child welfare practice called hospital or birth alerts, citing the rights of Indigenous people.

“Used in hospitals for decades in B.C. and in other provinces and territories, these alerts are issued, without the consent of the expectant parents, where there is a potential safety risk to infants at birth,” Katrine Conroy, the Minister of Children and Family Development, said in a statement announcing the change.

Birth alerts were issued when hospital staff wanted to flag a parent to the ministry as potentially unfit or a threat to their child’s safety.

RELATED: Indigenous couple accused of neglect shares audio recording of meeting with ministry after baby seized

The province acknowledged that birth alerts were primarily used for marginalized women, especially Indigenous women.

Conroy says the province is hoping a new approach will better support families, including providing prenatal support and services to expectant mothers who want the help.

“We’re doing it to change the way we interact with expectant parents that are supporting them, and trying to ensure that we can keep families together and newborn safe,” she tells NEWS 1130. “We believe that will encourage positive parenting habits and will help give the families the best start once the baby is born.”

She says the current system has failed Indigenous people.

“I believe there’s been system-wide assumptions and practices that have actually failed Indigenous children and families and communities. And I’ve recognized that the over-representation of indigenous children and youth in care is unacceptable,” she says.

Now that the system has been dismantled, she says there are other ways to flag if a baby is in trouble.

“If a child is in danger, it’s everybody’s responsibility in the province to if they have a concern to let the ministry know,” she says. “We want to ensure what we’re doing now is is offering voluntary programs to families that too, so that there can be less disruptive measures

‘Baby H’ brings issue to forefront

In June, the province removed hours-old “Baby H” from its parents’ care after a birth alert was issued. The baby’s mother was accused of neglecting her baby 90 minutes after having a C-section at a Kamloops hospital. Both parents were registered members of the Tl’etinqox band and the move sparked widespread outrage in the province.

For Cheryl Casimer with the First Nations Summit, this announcement marks the end of a long battle.

“Families have been separated and basically torn apart because of this,” she says, adding it never should have happened in the first place. “So this baby was born and then they would remove that child from the family. There really was no consideration taken into any improvements that might have taken place.”

Casimer says Baby H’s story was the first time many people had heard of the practice and that contributed to the government’s decision to scrap it now. “It did bring to attention the practice that was being carried out.”

The change is effective immediately, Conroy says, and there are other safeguards in place to keep children safe.

RELATED: Indigenous child seizures putting all families at risk: Chief

“This step is consistent with my mandate from Premier John Horgan to provide better supports to keep Indigenous children at home and out of care. It responds directly to the recommendation from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls to stop using birth alerts and reflects our commitment to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action,” her statement says.

Former ministry critic Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says the province’s decision is a major step in re-building a broken care system.

“It really impacted the ability of moms to breastfeed, to make sure that that early bonding happened. The way in which they were often treated, in this really sensitive time, was not in keeping with the standards that should have applied,” she says. “It gives me a great deal of comfort to see some of the key recommendations that I made being actioned, and I know that’s how we bring really meaningful change for children and families.”

Of the 488 children who entered state care last year either by removal or an agreement with their parents, 197 of them were under a week old, according to a report by the MCFD and Representative for Children and Youth.

Other provinces and territories still use the birth alert system, despite opposition.

With files from Lasia Kretzel and Marcella Bernardo