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Traditional headdress to illustrate the blog post "End Birth Alerts That Separate At-Risk Indigenous Mothers From Their Children" by Michael J. Sullivan on the OUP blog

End birth alerts that separate at-risk Indigenous mothers from their children

Born Innocent uncovers the ongoing legacy of state-mandated family separation on Indigenous and other minority communities, with a particular focus on women and children. 

To overcome the intergenerational legacy of state-mandated family separations beginning with the residential and boarding school policies of settler states, governments must give Indigenous communities more autonomy to manage their own child welfare policies. An encouraging development involves the end of the practice of “birth alerts” in most Canadian provinces that allowed hospitals and social services to flag expectant mothers deemed to be high-risk, to seize their babies upon delivery. The prospect of “birth alerts” and hospital baby seizures are devastating for any new mother. Conscious of the prospect that their baby might be taken from them, at-risk Indigenous, racialized, and disabled expecting mothers avoid prenatal care or social programs that might otherwise improve their pregnancy and birth outcomes.

Non-Indigenous social welfare agencies continue to disproportionately target Indigenous pregnant women for “birth interventions,” furthering the cycle and legacy of state-mandated Indigenous family separation. Ending birth alerts was a top priority in Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The report detailed how Indigenous women are more likely to have their babies seized by child welfare authorities under the birth alert system simply because they were once in the child welfare system themselves. 

“Non-Indigenous social welfare agencies continue to disproportionately target Indigenous pregnant women for ‘birth interventions’.”

Among Canadian provinces, Québec is a holdout in its ongoing use of birth alerts, making the province the subject of a class action suit on behalf of Indigenous mothers whose children were taken away from them at birth. Indigenous advocates in one rural Québec region (Abitibi-Témiscamingue) reported that 30% of child welfare interventions in the past two years involved Indigenous families, who make up only 4% of the region’s population. There, the Femmes Autochtones du Québec advocacy group led a pressure campaign to end the practice since it dissuades expecting Indigenous mothers from going to the hospital for preventive care during their pregnancies. 

Despite the official end to the practice of birth alerts in Canada, Indigenous babies continue to be separated from their mothers in First Nations communities in Northern Ontario communities All jurisdictions must follow through with their commitments to end birth alerts. Mothers targeted because of their poverty, experiences of domestic violence, or past involvement in the child welfare system are victims themselves who need support from social workers. Indigenous communities need more resources to provide support to their members and to protect mothers and children from abusive situations.

Similar child welfare interventions target disadvantaged minority women in other jurisdictions, including the United States, where Black women are the main target for birth removals. There, Black mothers face child custody removals at rates up to 10 times those of white mothers, for many of the same reasons that lead to birth alerts among Indigenous Canadian women, including poverty, addiction, and insecure housing. Black mothers often face custody removals because of their precarious economic circumstances, creating a set of conditions that make it difficult for them to ever attain the degree of self-sufficiency required by child welfare authorities to regain custody of their children. 

“Birth alerts are examples of preventive justice actions that penalize and condemn women for seeking medical assistance.”

Birth alerts are examples of preventive justice actions that penalize and condemn women for seeking medical assistance. Their at-risk situation is not an individual character failing that merits condemnation and enforcement, but a medical condition or structural issue best addressed through treatment and social support. While the end to birth alerts in some Canadian jurisdictions is an encouraging first step, what is needed—across all jurisdictions—are child welfare policies that emphasize support and rehabilitation for expecting mothers and their families, rather than policies that punish disadvantaged mothers for challenges they cannot overcome on their own. 

New parents experience birth alerts and baby seizures as forms of punishment that undermines the bond between infants and their mothers at a crucial stage in their development by depriving them of their mother’s care, nursing, and bonding. Instead of issuing birth alerts resulting in baby seizures, child welfare agencies should reach out to at-risk expecting mothers with help to treat addictions, provide support, and find housing before and after they give birth. Expecting mothers need to know that social service agencies will not punish them with child removal at birth when they reach out to seek treatment and other forms of social assistance.

Featured image from Unsplash (public domain)

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