Why do First Nations want the province’s practice of birth alerts ended? Why is the practice considered by some to be harmful to First Nations mothers, children, families and communities? What are the alternatives?
The Brandon Sun posed a series of questions by email to Southern First Nations Network of Care chief executive officer Theresa Stevens regarding the network’s mandate from the Southern Chiefs’ Organization to replace birth alerts with practices more in line with familial and community needs.
The text has been edited for length and clarity.
The Brandon Sun: Set the context — why must birth alerts stop? How are they harmful?
Theresa Stevens: Like our community leadership, the Southern First Nation Network of Care believes that our children are precious gifts from the Creator. It is our responsibility to ensure that they are prioritized in the decisions we make and the actions we take to ensure that they are safe, secure and are given the best opportunity to thrive as they grow into youth and adults who will lead our communities into the future.
This (work) is a response to the intergenerational impacts of removing Indigenous children from their families and culture, be it through the use of Indigenous residential schools, the Sixties Scoop or the current over-representation of our children in Manitoba’s child welfare system. Compromising the fortitude of Indigenous cultures by destroying the foundation of community well-being — Indigenous families — has resulted in detrimental impacts to the emotional and mental well-being of Indigenous women.
Tearing families apart feeds the rampant issues of high incarceration rates for men and women, systemic poverty, decreased life expectancy and high rates of missing and murdered women and girls, all of which have a heightened impact on our First Nations families and communities.
Earlier this year, the minister of Families admitted that birth alerts do not mitigate harm to infants born to at-risk mothers, and the Southern First Nations Network of Care would add that birth alerts actually increase risk for children born to these mothers.
Placing First Nation children in care is a certain threat to their chances of stability, safety and success in life. The rest of Canada has managed to mitigate the risk of children born to vulnerable mothers without the use of birth alerts. Our southern First Nations leadership believes that the same can be done here.
To that end, southern First Nations child welfare agencies will no longer issue birth alerts. Our agencies will work with Indigenous women and their families to provide meaningful and culturally relevant family services that allow these women to rediscover the knowledge that their ancestors used to guide generations of Indigenous children prior to colonization.
In accordance with the new federal legislation governing the provision of child welfare services to First Nations people, Bill C-92, An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Children, youth and families, southern First Nations child welfare agencies will strive to provide differential service responses to First Nations mothers to prevent the apprehension of their children at birth, and to decrease the number of children coming into care by supporting
families to keep their children at home safely.
The Sun: So far, have Southern First Nations Network of Care and its agencies have been following provincial birth alert policy?
TS: The Southern First Nations Network of Care is a mandated authority in Manitoba, and we have historically followed the birth alert policy. In light of current developments in the provision of child welfare services to First Nations families, southern First Nations leadership has chosen to exercise our inherent jurisdiction to address these safety concerns in a differential way that improves outcomes for Indigenous mothers and their children.
The Sun: Are there legal ramifications to Southern First Nations Network of Care going ahead with its own policies and plan?
TS: All of the things our agencies are doing — differential response, prevention, early intervention, wraparound services — are meant to address the risk faced by children born to vulnerable mothers. The province has been clear that authorities have the jurisdiction to respond differentially to these challenges. If there are situations where an agency has tried everything required and the parent will not agree to receive services or utilize community resources, something similar to a birth alert may be issued. However, we will work with our agencies to ensure that they are supported to respond in these different situations to prevent that from happening.
The Sun: What is the culturally appropriate alternative?
TS: Southern First Nations have lost so many of our traditional teachings about the process of bringing life into the world, how we welcome babies into the community, naming ceremonies and building a family and community support structure around new parents, to name a few. These ceremonies and teachings provided structure and guidance to First Nations communities to keep families safe, strong and together.
Our family systems and cultural foundations have been destroyed by colonization and the structures that uphold the oppression of First Nations people: child welfare, the justice system and socio-economic inequality, etc. We must make a special effort to restore our traditional knowledge and teachings that give First Nations parents guidance and support to nurture their families
in a culturally meaningful way.
The Southern First Nations Network of Care will work with our agencies to develop and implement culturally appropriate and meaningful processes and programs to strengthen the traditional knowledge base of families to enable them to keep their children safely at home.
An example of this is the Restoring the Sacred Bond Initiative, Manitoba’s groundbreaking social impact bond. This is a partnership between the Province of Manitoba and the Southern First Nations Network of Care that seeks to improve maternal and child health, build strengths, cultural identity and social outcomes through access to culturally grounded birth helpers. This program provides support and guidance to at-risk mothers before, during and up to one year after the birth of their child. This program will allow up to 200 mothers to reconnect with their traditional cultural practices and strengthen their support networks.
The Sun: Down the line in the process — at actual hospitals — will this create problems for parents? If a hospital isn’t on board? Or is this accounted for in the policy and plan?
TS: If a birth alert is voided, the hospital will not receive notice of an alert. If hospital staff has child protection concerns once the child is born, they still have a duty to report their concerns to the designated intake agency in their service area of the province.
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.