Child apprehension occurs when a government agency removes a child from their family home or legal guardian following allegations of neglect or abuse. These situations can be traumatic for everyone involved, especially the child who may be placed in the care of strangers if there are no family members or others in the local community who can act as the child’s guardian. This can have a particularly traumatic impact on Indigenous children who are removed from their community and placed in the care of a family or guardian who has no connection to the child’s culture.
Child apprehension is usually a final step taken by Alberta’s Children’s Services after they are made aware of a concern relating to the abuse or neglect of a child. In most cases, the agency acts in response to a report by someone who knows the child and raises a question of whether the child may be at risk due to physical or emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, or sexual abuse. However, in some cases, individuals may be made the subject of what is referred to as a ‘birth alert’, which can place them at risk of having a child removed from their care immediately after the child is born.
The practice has been discontinued in some provinces; however, it still remains an ongoing concern in several provinces. The practice was discontinued only two years ago in British Columbia and Alberta, after several calls to eliminate birth alerts from the provinces Indigenous communities. In September of this year, a class action was launched on behalf of parents who were made the subject of birth alerts in British Columbia. Below, we will examine birth alerts in more detail, the impact they have on Canada’s Indigenous communities. Further, we will look at what the class action and increased awareness of the institutional racism faced by Canada’s Indigenous communities could mean for provinces that still use the practice.
A birth alert, also sometimes called a hospital alert, is a process whereby a social worker will flag an expectant parent who they feel may pose a risk to their newborn baby once born. The flag, or alert, is unknown to the parent and their family but it is communicated to hospital staff. Once the child is born, the alert will prompt the hospital staff to contact social workers to report the birth.
From there, the social worker or child protection authority will intervene. In a statistic reported by the Toronto Star, birth alerts resulted in child apprehension, where the newborn was removed from their parent’s care, in approximately 28% of cases.
According to Cora, a Cree Métis woman who spoke about her experience being subjected to a birth alert in 2013 with APTN News, the process has left her traumatized, and it created severe anxiety when she gave birth to her other children in subsequent years. When Cora gave birth to her first child, she was still in the hospital four days later when Alberta’s Children’s Services came to the hospital and served her with an order to apprehend her son.
The experience has caused her to experience flashbacks and intense anxiety, especially when she was in the hospital after birthing her other two children.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital. I was like, ‘I’m so terrified of being here – What if they call the ministry on me for any little thing? What happens if they try to turn my race against me again? What happens if I change a diaper wrong?’ All it takes is one phone call.”
A class action lawsuit was launched in September on behalf of parents subjected to birth alerts in the province, claiming that birth alerts are “issued based on speculative child protection concerns, often without any supporting evidence”. Further, the alerts are “grounded in discriminatory assumptions regarding which individuals are likely to be neglectful or abusive parents [and are] disproportionately employed against Indigenous, racialized, and/or disabled pregnant persons”. According to the Toronto Star, 58% of birth alerts in 2018 targeted Indigenous parents.
Plaintiffs in the suit were able to confirm they had been the subject of a birth alert by requesting a copy of their provincial health records. Since parents were not made aware of the alert, there was no other way to confirm the alert existed.
The class action is still awaiting certification, but if allowed to proceed, could have an impact on provinces that still employ the use of these alerts for expectant parents.
A number of provinces have pledged to stop using the practice of birth alerts after acknowledging the trauma they cause for parents and children. British Columbia stopped the practice in 2019, while Ontario and Manitoba stopped in 2020. According to Irwin Elman, an Ontario advocate for children and youth, just under 450 children between the ages of seven days and one year were apprehended from their parents in a one-year period between 2018 and 2019. It is unknown how many of those cases were the result of a birth alert since the practice was not officially documented.
There are still, however, several provinces using birth alerts to target parents for potential child intervention, including:
If your child is apprehended, there are strict timelines you need to observe, making it important to seek legal advice as soon as possible. The family lawyers at Mincher Koeman can help. We have the experience necessary to assist you throughout this process and will work to protect your rights and the rights of your child. Our team has been working closely with Alberta’s Indigenous communities in matters involving Alberta Children’s Services. Please contact our office to discuss your options by calling us at 403-910-3000 or by contacting us online.
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