The provincial directive to end the “discriminatory practice” of birth alerts is a big step forward to keeping Indigenous and racialized families together, according to advocates in Ontario.
The directive, issued on July 14 by Ontario Associate Minister of Children and Women’s Issues Jill Dunlop, ordered children’s aid societies to stop issuing birth alerts by mid-October.
“For our community … for Indigenous women across the province of Ontario … this is a real sign of recognition of our rights as mothers, our rights as women but also, more importantly, this is going to improve the outcomes for Indigenous children and Indigenous babies across the province,” said Dawn Lavell Harvard, president of the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA).
She added, “I’m absolutely over-the-moon happy with the current government for taking this all-important step to recognize the autonomy of Indigenous mothers, to recognize their right to mother their own children – something that was taken away with residential schools, were taken away with the Sixties Scoop and has been taken away generation after generation by racist governments.”
The practice of birth alerts – where a children’s aid society notifies hospitals when they believe a newborn may be in need of protection – has long been reported to disproportionately affect Indigenous families in Ontario.
Its elimination was also a recommendation made by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Lavell Harvard said the systemic discrimination seen in the practice of birth alerts is reflected more broadly in the child welfare system.
“We know that there are currently more children in the care of the child welfare system than were in the residential schools at the height of the residential school system. And this is a result of poverty, is a result of racism, discrimination and systemic racism within the child welfare system … where Indigenous mothers and Indigenous families are unfairly targeted.”
Child welfare agencies in NWO welcome the decision
“We recognize that in most cases, birth alerts do not support our gaol of protecting children while supporting families to stay together. Every new mother and father need to be treated with respect, not negatively impacted because of an alert that might result in judgement with discriminatory measures,” said Thelma Morris, executive director of Tikinagan Child & Family Services, a “community-based” child welfare agency that serves more than 30 First Nations in northern Ontario.
The executive director for the Children’s Aid Society of Thunder Bay, Brad Bain, said he sees the directive as a “positive step” made by the provincial government.
Bain acknowledged “the role that the Thunder Bay agency has played certainly, as well as our sector, in contributing to systemic racism and oppression.”
He estimated that in recent years, the agency has issued five birth alerts per year, although noted that no birth alerts have been issued in 2020.
“As an organization, we are committed to the elimination of systemic racism and have an internal, anti-oppressive practices committee and we work in concert with our local stakeholders to inform our practices and our policies,” Bain added.
More support needed to keep families together
Lavell Harvard said there is a lot more work to be done to keep families together.
“Indigenous-run child welfare organizations are discriminated against in terms … they’re expected to do more to hold families together with significantly less resources and then they are blamed when they have poor outcomes.”
She added more “upstream” investment is needed to ensure Indigenous families are supported.
“If one wants to talk bottom line in terms of investments … we need to be investing in that prevention, investing in providing Indigenous moms and their families with the tools they need to survive and provide for our families.”