'It's torturous': Young mother joins calls from MMIWG advocates to stop apprehensions at birth
Manitoba has highest per capita rate of apprehensions, children in care
A young mother who was on Manitoba's birth alert system is joining calls from advocates, researchers and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls demanding that the province stop taking babies from mothers at birth.
The recommendation to immediately end birth alerts was among 231 in the final report of the MMIWG inquiry, which was released on Monday.
“I don't think it's right,” said Shaylese Monkman, 20, who was the subject of a birth alert — a warning from a social services agency to a hospital to flag a person's history, which may lead to a baby being apprehended from its mother in the hospital.
In Monkman's case, the alert was issued by her social worker to the hospital after a domestic incident with her former partner.
“It stresses out expecting mothers and new mothers. And the thought [that] CFS is going to come to the hospital — that's scary,” she said.
'The most violent act you can commit to a woman'
Manitoba has the highest per capita rate of children in care in Canada and apprehends about one newborn a day.
“We wanted to be able to get it on the record that it's wrong,” said Cora Morgan, the First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
“The elders have said to me that the most violent act you can commit to a woman is to steal her child. You see that when you witness it,” she said.
She still gets emotional when she speaks about an apprehension she witnessed, where the mother was crying so hard she couldn't see the second-hand outfit she'd bought her baby before handing the infant over to a case worker.
“We've even had mothers who've left the province to deliver their babies in Ontario because they know their baby won't be taken there,” said Morgan.
Monkman said workers from the All Nations Coordinated Response Network “scared her up” when they got involved last year, telling her if she did “this or that” they would take her baby.
She cut off contact with the child's father, found support and learned her rights through the First Nations family advocate's office, where she began parenting classes and got help in getting the birth alert removed from her CFS file.
“I'm still scared. I'm an Indigenous woman. I'm young. I'm a single mom. They might just come and show up at the hospital,” she said.
When Monkman — who is expecting her second child in September — found out she was pregnant again, she didn't want to tell her social worker.
“I thought, 'What if they apprehend my baby at birth this time?'”
'You could easily lose value for life'
At the MMIWG inquiry hearings, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs spoke about the traumatizing effects on the mother of having their child apprehended, often without knowing where they were being taken, at birth.
“It's torturous. There's hopelessness and you could easily lose value for life when your child is taken,” said Morgan.
Police say the majority of missing people in Manitoba have been involved in the child and family services system. Morgan says the province puts both mothers and their children at a higher risk when babies are apprehended.
“The practice is a human rights violation because a lot of times the parents don't have a chance to show whether they can parent or not,” she said.
“It's an assumption made earlier on in the pregnancy, and a lot of times moms don't even know their babies are going to be apprehended when it's born.”
“The system needs to end,” says a researcher who has studied the health effects of apprehensions on mothers.
“The reality is it's much more damaging than it does good,” said Elizabeth Wall-Wieler, a post-doctoral fellow in the Stanford School of Medicine. She completed her PhD thesis on the health effects of apprehensions on mothers at the University of Manitoba.
She said while research is clear on the detrimental effects to the child when bonding, skin-to-skin contact, and breastfeeding are disrupted soon after birth, her research found the mental health of mothers who lost custody of their children to CFS was even worse than that of mothers whose children died.
Wall-Wieler found the risk for suicide in those mothers goes up, rates of substance use disorders doubled and mental health plummeted.
She said Manitoba has the highest rate of apprehension in the developed world, with about three per cent of its children in care, compared to less than one per cent in other developed countries.
“I don't see the potential benefit of having the system outweigh those terrible outcomes,” she said, adding provinces need to fund prevention and supporting mothers who are struggling, rather than focusing on apprehensions.
“Having mothers fear that they will have their child placed in care may make them less likely to go and access services during pregnancy that could improve both her and her child's outcomes.”
Money for apprehension, but not support: Morgan
In a statement, a spokesperson for Minister of Families Heather Stefanson pointed to the province's efforts to “work collectively toward meaningful change to benefit all Manitobans, particularly Indigenous women and girls.”
That includes Manitoba's social impact bond program, which will fund doulas to support at-risk new moms, its $3 million funding increase to Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, and its conversion to a block-funding CFS model for individual agencies “to ensure they have greater flexibility to meet the needs of children and families, with a focus on prevention and reunification,” the spokesperson said.
“Manitoba remains committed to modernizing the CFS Act and addressing the recommendations received,” said the spokesperson.
“In the interim, we are working with authorities to ensure processes and standards related to birth alerts are used only in situations where there is a risk of imminent harm or danger, as this will help reduce the use of birth alerts.”
If you're a worker and you see a mother's struggling, you don't have money to help her … but you have money to take the child away and put them in a stranger's home.– AMC First Nations family advocate Cora Morgan
“It's not the last resort here in Manitoba,” said Morgan.
“Rather than going in and supporting a mom, and saying, 'OK, if you need adequate housing, let's support you with that. If you need diapers or prenatal supports, let's help you with those things' … the funding model is apprehension-based,” she said.
“If you're a worker and you see a mother's struggling, you don't have money to help her with some groceries or help her with a damage deposit, but you have money to take the child away and put them in a stranger's home, and pay them close to five times what a woman on social assistance would get,” said Morgan.
'I'm a good mother'
She hopes the MMIWG inquiry's recommendation also pushes the province and First Nations communities to prioritize prevention, including the support they offer expecting mothers.
Monkman said her CFS case worker offered her more support, but she declined.
“I didn't want them to keep my file open any longer, because having to look over your shoulder all the time when you have to deal with CFS is kind of stressful every day,” she said. “I didn't want my son getting taken, and my new baby.”
She's still taking parenting courses and feels safe and supported at the First Nations family advocate's office.
“I'm a good mother. I'm taking my courses. I do my best.”