Hospital received 298 birth alerts since October 2020, when Ontario ended them
CBC News: Despite the fact that Ontario put a stop to birth alerts in 2020, Quebec child welfare agencies continued to send hundreds of the controversial notifications — which can be used to threaten to or actually seize newborns from their mothers — to Ottawa’s largest hospital.
According to internal hospital data obtained by CBC News, The Ottawa Hospital received 298 birth alerts from October 2020 onward. That was when the province ended the practice, saying the alerts disproportionately affect Indigenous and other racialized mothers.
All the alerts issued after 2020 came from Quebec and “were not acted upon,” the hospital said. But Cora McGuire-Cyrette, CEO of the Ontario Native Women’s Association, said it’s “disheartening to see these numbers.” And an Ottawa doula told CBC that clients told her they’d experienced birth alerts at the hospital as recently as this year.
Birth alerts are notifications issued by child welfare agencies to hospitals that target unborn children of pregnant people who they deem “high-risk.” After they’re issued, health-care providers are required to alert welfare authorities when the person comes to seek medical care or deliver their baby.
The alerts can lead to newborns being taken from their parents for days, months or even years. Critics have called them unconstitutional and illegal. The Ontario government directed children’s aid societies to stop sending birth alerts to hospitals by Oct. 15, 2020. Years later, on April 14, 2023, the Quebec government announced it was ending birth alerts, becoming the last province in Canada to do so.
CBC submitted a freedom of information request to all Ottawa hospitals asking for details on birth alerts they’d received from 2010 to 2022. Queensway Carleton, Montfort, Bruyère and CHEO said they kept no records on birth alerts. The Ottawa Hospital was the only institution that kept track of them, and shared the number of alerts they received between 2017 and 2022.
What do the numbers show?
Child welfare agencies issued 1,206 birth alerts to the hospital between 2017 and 2022. In the last three years, from 2020 to 2022, the hospital received 487 — including 71 last year. August 2022 was the only month in the past six years that the hospital recorded zero birth alerts. It got 36 of them in October 2018 — the highest number of alerts for any month in the data CBC received.
A footnote states the hospital notified Quebec’s Department of Youth Protection that birth alerts would not be accepted as of November 2022. In December 2022, the hospital still received nine of them.
Not surprised, says doula
Gina Louttit, a full spectrum Indigenous doula in Ottawa, said she “wasn’t surprised” by the numbers, and that the alerts should stop. “I had a couple of clients in Ottawa that had experienced it recently in 2023,” Louttit said. Those clients told her child protection workers visited them shortly after they gave birth at The Ottawa Hospital. “They felt targeted, they felt unsafe,” she said. “It makes me feel upset … because it’s been going on for years.”
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Louttit gave birth to her daughter in June 2018 at another Ottawa hospital, and believes she experienced a birth alert at that time. Within a few hours, a nurse told her Children’s Aid Society was coming to visit her, she said. A social worker came and interrogated her, saying she was a young mother at the time, Louttit said. “I felt very targeted,” she said. “I wasn’t notified it was a birth alert but it felt like it was, just because I was not expecting [the Children’s Aid Society] to show up.”
Louttit said that even after asking her doctor and nurse practitioner to look into it, she never got confirmation.
Birth alerts are often issued unbeknownst to the mother and without evidence of real risk, which means requesting records may be the only way to prove someone’s been targeted by a birth alert — a process criticized as inaccessible. The Ottawa Hospital declined an interview and did not specifically address CBC’s question about Louttit’s patients possibly experiencing birth alerts this year.
McGuire-Cyrette wonders how many more hospitals continued to receive birth alerts across Canada. During engagements with Indigenous women in the last year, she said she’s heard new mothers continue to navigate a health-care system “that operates in an unacceptable level of violence” against them.
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Though all provinces in Canada have now issued directives to end birth alerts, McGuire-Cyrette believes Indigenous mothers will continue to be “red-flagged.” “I think it may continue in a new approach, in a new way,” she said.
Workers may issue alerts by habit: director
Colette Nadeau, the director of youth protection for Quebec’s Outaouais region, said the ministry had told its child protection partners to stop issuing birth alerts as of March 13, 2023. She said alerts from Quebec were likely issued for Quebec residents who decided to give birth in Ontario.
After the Ontario government ended the practice, some Quebec welfare partners may have continued to issue birth alerts, not realizing the practice ended across the border, Nadeau said. “It’s possible that some of our employees — there is a lot of turnover — were not aware of it, so they were still doing it,” Nadeau said in an interview in French.
In an emailed statement, the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa said it has not issued any birth alerts since September 2020, aligning with the provincial directive to end them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang, Reporter/Editor
Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang is a reporter with CBC News based in Ottawa. She’s worked with the investigative unit, CBC Toronto, and CBC North in Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit. She has a Master of Journalism from Carleton University. Want to contact her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org