Indigenous mother proposes class action lawsuit on birth alerts in Manitoba

WINNIPEG — An Indigenous woman whose newborn was taken by police and social workers shown in a video broadcast live on social media has proposed a class-action lawsuit against the Manitoba government.

The woman says in a statement of claim filed this week that birth alerts are unlawful, breach charter rights and cause significant harm to mothers and children.

“There was a feeling I had that this isn’t right,” the mother said Thursday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“The betrayal.”

The Canadian Press is not identifying the mother so as not to identify the child.

A video in 2019 of the two-day-old infant’s apprehension at a Winnipeg hospital caused significant public outcry. The broadcast on Facebook showed the mother weeping nearby before officers took the baby away in a car seat.

Court documents said while the woman was still pregnant, she had reached out to social services for help and to make arrangements for the baby to be placed with her aunt.

She only learned she was subject to a birth alert when authorities showed up at the hospital to take the child, the court documents said.

The mother said she felt completely blindsided and manipulated when she learned the alert had been placed on her for seeking help before giving birth.

About two months after the baby was taken, guardianship was transferred to the aunt. Court documents say the woman remains in her baby’s life and cares for her on a regular basis.

The province said Thursday it was unable to provide comment on the lawsuit because the matter is before the court.

The mother said many other Indigenous mothers approached her after seeing the video and told her they had been through a similar experience. She said she realized she wanted to do something to ensure what happened to her wouldn’t happen again.

“I feel like it’s my job to help put an end to this, to help make it right for the mother, for the child, and hopefully for the system all together _ because this is not right.”

The mother is represented by Alisa Lombard, a Saskatchewan-based lawyer who also worked on a class action involving Indigenous women who alleged they were forcibly sterilized.

Birth alerts have long been criticized by Indigenous leaders who say the practice is stacked against their families. The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls said the alerts are “racist and discriminatory and are a gross violation of the rights of the child, the mother, and the community.”

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said systemic racism exists in child and family services.

“We cannot rely on the government to have our best interest and to ensure the well-being of our children and families,” Dumas said in a news release.

The statement of claim says birth alerts are typically issued by social workers. The alerts may occur because the pregnant woman is, or was, in care, or because she is looking for help from a social worker.

The alert is issued without meeting any specific requirements and is not later reviewed, the lawsuit says. A document is issued to hospitals containing information about the pregnant woman, including alleged child protection concerns.

The lawsuit alleges that birth alerts are motivated by “discriminatory and harmful stereotypes about the parenting capabilities of persons of certain backgrounds.”

“The inevitable result of this process has, therefore, been that most birth alerts in Manitoba are issued against Indigenous or racialized persons, or persons living with a mental or physical disability, at rates wholly disproportionate to their representation in the Canadian population at large.”

Statistics from the Manitoba government at the time of the 2019 video showed that newborn apprehensions occurred, on average, once a day. There are about 10,000 children in care in Manitoba and about 90 per cent are Indigenous.

The province stopped using birth alerts in 2020 after a review found the practice was discouraging expectant mothers and families from reaching out for prenatal support.

The alerts have also been stopped in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island and Yukon.

Cora Morgan, First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said her office continues to receive calls from mothers who have had their newborns taken from them.

“Newborn apprehensions and the removal of children is an extremely traumatic practice that has long-lasting physical, mental and emotional effects for First Nations families,” Morgan said in a news release.

The mother said she feels lucky that her aunt was able to step in. But three years after her daughter’s birth, the woman is still navigating the courts to get the child home one day.

She said other mothers she talks with don’t have the same support or are unable to speak out about injustices they may face.

“I was given that strength, that power, that courage. I’m going to say something if something is not right.”

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