Seven Questions Answered About the Cessation of Birth Alerts in Ontario

In July 2020, the Ontario government announced that the practice of issuing birth alerts in Ontario would cease. Here are the answers to seven common questions about the practice and the decision to end it.

1. What was a birth alert?

Birth alerts were notifications sent by children’s aid societies to hospitals when they believed a newborn may be in need of protection. These notifications were sent in advance of the child’s birth and could result in the baby being removed from the care of its mother immediately after being born.

2. When was the decision made to cease the practice of birth alerts in Ontario?

On July 13, 2020, OACAS was advised that the Ontario government is ceasing the practice of birth alerts in the province. The new policy directive (CW005-20) came into effect the same day and advised children’s aid societies to:

  • Cease the practice of birth alerts by October 15, 2020.
  • Issue a letter to local hospitals, pre- and post-natal service providers, and other relevant healthcare practitioners advising them of the direction provided in this policy directive, inviting them to meet to facilitate collaborative approaches to working with expectant parents, and to remind them of their duty to report suspected child abuse and neglect to a child to their local children’s aid society.
  • Confirm in writing to the ministry that it has implemented the requirements in the directive by October 31, 2020.

The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services issued a news release on July 14, 2020 publicly acknowledging the elimination of the practice as a step toward creating a child welfare system focused on prevention and early intervention.

3. How was the decision made to cease the practice of birth alerts?

In early 2020, the Ontario government undertook a process to engage key stakeholders to learn more about the birth alerts practice in Ontario. The issue was raised in the context of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which called on provincial and territorial governments to immediately end the practice of “birth alerts” or “hospital alerts” as they disproportionately impact Indigenous women.

To inform its decision making and to better understand the current intent, impact, and unintended consequences of birth alerts on women, children, families and communities, MCCSS held a series of meetings with Indigenous and non-Indigenous service leaders.

4. When did the practice of birth alerts cease?

As of October 15, 2020, the practice of birth alerts ceased in the province of Ontario. After this date, Children’s Aid Societies and Indigenous Child and Family Well-Being Agencies will no longer be able to notify hospitals or birth centres about an expectant mother whose newborn child they suspect may be at risk. By this date, all child welfare agencies should have contacted their local hospital and pre- and post-natal healthcare providers to ensure they are aware of the changes and to begin the process of establishing new, collaborative approaches to working together.

5. What is the child welfare sector’s position on the cessation of birth alerts?

OACAS and Children’s Aid Societies in Ontario supports the government’s decision to cease the practice of birth alerts. We understand that birth alerts can have negative impacts and unintended consequences for women, children, families, and communities in Ontario. Specifically, OACAS recognizes that certain populations have been disproportionately affected by this practice, including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, Black African Canadians, low income, transient, and those affected by substance use and mental health.

We acknowledge that birth alerts contribute to systemic racism in child welfare and that in order to address the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous children in care, we must update, and in some cases eliminate, existing policies, practices, and protocols.

6. How will the cessation of birth alerts change Children’s Aid Societies approach to working with expectant mothers and healthcare providers?

Children’s Aid Societies recognize that in most cases, birth alerts do not support the Ontario child welfare sector’s collective goal to protect children while supporting families to stay together. We support an approach that focuses on prevention and early intervention in order to strengthen families and ensure the safety and well-being of the province’s children and youth.

Children’s Aid Societies are committed to adopting a collaborative and interactive approach to working with expectant mothers, their family, their cultural community, and social service partners, including the healthcare sector, where the safety and well-being of the child is at the centre of decision-making.

Children’s Aid Societies will take into account the traditional and cultural values of families when working with expectant parents to ensure the right pre- and post-natal supports are available. Child welfare’s response will consider the impact of systemic issues, including poverty, racism, and historical trauma, on the ability of parents and caregivers to provide safe and adequate care for their infants and children. Learn more about how child welfare plans to move forward here.

7. What responsibility to healthcare professionals have to ensure the safety of infants in their care?

Healthcare professionals and hospital staff continue to have a legal obligation, or “duty to report”, if they have concerns about an infant, child, or youth’s safety or well-being. Failure to report their concerns is in contravention to the Child, Youth and Family Services Act. If their concerns are regarding an expectant parent, they can seek consent from the mother to contact a Children’s Aid Society or Indigenous Child and Family Well-Being Agency on her behalf. If she does not consent, and safety concerns remain following the birth of the newborn, healthcare staff should call their local child welfare agency.