P.E.I. ends controversial birth alert practice

·3 min read

Prince Edward Island is ending a controversial practice called birth alerts that allowed social workers or hospitals to flag expectant parents who they feel might put their newborns at risk.

The province started a review of the system last year after B.C., Ontario and Manitoba banned the practice.

"There's been no evidence to suggest that birth alerts do increase the safety of a child at birth," said Kelly Peck, the P.E.I. director of child protection.

"In fact, there have been many indications that some expectant parents will avoid seeking prenatal treatment and connecting with community services in order to avoid that alert being placed with the hospital."

'I was elated'

On P.E.I., Peck said about 10 to 15 birth alerts are issued annually. And while those numbers don't indicate a disproportionate number of Indigenous families, she said that is the case in other parts of the country.

In 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls described the method with words like "racist" and "discriminatory."

Wayne Thibodeau/CBC
Wayne Thibodeau/CBC

"When I first heard the news, of course, I was elated," said Lynn Bradley, the mental health and addiction co-ordinator with the Native Council of P.E.I.

"It has stopped some of our moms from receiving prenatal care because they don't want that flag or that alert to be raised when they go in."

Bradley said without those alerts, it is still crucial something is done to ensure children are safe. But she said those particular notifications miss the root cause of some of the challenges parents are facing.

"When you look at the families, the family units that these birth alerts have impacted, perhaps these parents were taken away as children, perhaps there has been previous children that have been taken away from the mom," said Bradley.

"We've done nothing to address the trauma that led to the need for intervention."

Putting the child at risk?

P.E.I. Child and Youth Advocate Marvin Bernstein said he does not have enough information on the decision of banning the practice to decide if he supports or opposes the move.

But he said he agreed that something needs to be done to replace the system.

It is the public's duty to report if they have concerns. — Kelly Peck

"By eliminating this practice, are we perhaps causing more situations where infant children may be unsafe?" Bernstein said.

"Where an expectant mother who is failing to co-operate with child protection services may have mental health issues, may have serious drug addictions issues, could be putting the life of that infant child at risk?"

Bernstein said that he is disappointed he was not consulted on what he calls a major policy decision that will impact children.

Duty to report

In an email to CBC News, the province said: "When we become aware that we have a historical practice in place that is not in line with the charter and privacy rights of Islanders we are not in a position to consult about these practices, we are ethically responsible to stop them."

"Office of the Child and Youth Advocate are among the list of government and community partners that will be receiving formal communication," it continued.

Wayne Thibodeau/CBC
Wayne Thibodeau/CBC

As for Peck, she maintains that she believes ending birth alerts will not put children at greater risk and is reminding the public that people still have a duty to report.

"If there are child protection concerns with babies, children, youth it is really important to remind community members, all community members and all Islanders, that it is the public's duty to report if they have concerns."

Birth alerts are still in place in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador.

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