Indigenous lawsuit seeks damages from B.C. for disproportionate birth alerts

By Jake Cardinal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

(ANNews) – A class-action lawsuit has been filed in B.C. seeking reparations for the province’s birth alert practice that disproportionally affected hundreds of Indigenous and other racialized peoples.

A birth alert is a procedure in which social workers or hospital staff flag an expecting parent without their consent as being unfit to care for a child.

Birth alerts are intended to be issued if an official is concerned for the safety of a child due to things such as domestic violence, drug usage, or even history with child welfare in the parent family.

However, as the lawsuit points out, there are no clear rules or outlines for when a birth alert should be issued.

Thus, when it was in place in B.C., a birth alert issue was at the complete discretion of child protective agents or hospital workers.

“As a result of this arbitrary process, the speculative ‘child protection concerns’ leading to the issuance of a birth alert are, in many cases, motivated by discriminatory and harmful stereotypes about the parenting capabilities of persons of certain backgrounds,” the lawsuit states.

Nikida Steel, Plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit, experienced birth alert discrimination and eventually lost custody of her four children.

“There was paperwork that I read that said I was a heavy drug user,” she said. “I’ve never been a heavy drug user. I read information that said I was in a treatment program. I was never in a program. It said I had been sanctioned under the Mental Health Act. I had never been sanctioned under the Mental Health Act.

“These were all assumptions that were made, these were implicit biases. They don’t see you. They form assumptions.”

She is representing herself and all those who experienced a birth alert in B.C. between January 1, 2018 to September 16, 2019.

During that time, there were 423 birth alerts issued in the province, with 228 cases — which is more than half — being issued to Indigenous mothers.

However, the national practice goes back for a long while and so the lawsuit only covers a small percentage of all victims.

More lawsuits are expected to appear in the future.

B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development said that they were unable to comment on a matter currently before the court.

“What we can say is our government is committed to true and lasting reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and my ministry’s goal is to keep children safe with their families and connected to their culture and communities.”

Birth alerts in B.C. ended in 2019, with many provinces doing the same, following the release of the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2019, which recommended abolishing the practice entirely.

They are still in place in Quebec and Nova Scotia.

“I sustained extreme trauma based on the fact that I was subjected to this,” Steel said. “I would like to see them start supporting families.”

“The only way to reconciliation is to stop this type of treatment, to stop the damage.”

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