WINNIPEG — Manitoba's family services minister says almost half the hundreds of newborns seized by the province have developmental or addiction issues.
Last year, 358 Manitoba babies were taken into care at birth. Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said 45 per cent of them had a medical problem.
"In some cases, it's because of drugs that a mother may have used prior to the birth, so there is medical detoxing that has to happen for the child," she said in an interview. "(Apprehension) does not happen haphazardly. It is looked at as a last resort."
Child and Family Services agencies seize an average of one newborn a day. The province has one of the highest apprehension rates in Canada. There are over 10,000 children in care, the vast majority of them aboriginal.
Manitoba child welfare has been criticized for years for being too quick to apprehend children in some cases and for returning others repeatedly to abusive parents.
The system came under harsh scrutiny a year ago when 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was killed after running away from a hotel where she was in government care. The teen's body was found wrapped in a bag in the Red River.
The province promised to stop using hotels to house young wards after a girl was seriously assaulted this summer. The victim and the youth charged were in government care at a downtown Winnipeg hotel.
Manitoba's First Nations children's advocate recently criticized the apprehension of newborns which she said were being "shoved anywhere." Cora Morgan said newborns are being placed in loveless shelters rather than with their parents.
Irvin-Ross said the preference is always to place an apprehended child with family. Last year, only 10 infants were housed in shelters and only temporarily, she said.
The province is shifting its focus to prevention programs, the minister said, but sometimes apprehensions are unavoidable for the safety of the child.
Morgan said Manitoba apprehends double the number of newborns as Alberta — a province with quadruple the population — and three times the number as Saskatchewan, which has roughly the same population.
In cases she has worked on, newborns were taken from the hospital to an emergency shelter where they had limited contact with their mother, she said.
Morgan suggested that if almost half the newborns Manitoba seizes have a medical issue, then there should be programs and shelters that work with mothers as opposed to shutting them out.
"If you know that's what the stats are, why are there not supports extended prenatally?"
Manitoba has caught the attention of Christi Belcourt, a celebrated Metis artist in Ontario. After some research, she took to social media using the hashtag #StopStealingOurKids to denounce the apprehensions.
Given 90 per cent of children in Manitoba's care are aboriginal, Canadians have to connect the dots between residential schools and the '60s Scoop, when aboriginal children were removed from their homes and placed with non-aboriginal families, Belcourt said.
"You have to start to ask the question is this deliberate? Is there anything here that could be classified as genocide?" she said. "Is this part of a continued attempt at assimilation? We really have to take a good look at it."
Jon Gerrard, Manitoba's lone Liberal member of the legislature and a pediatrician, said even if a mother or her baby is struggling with a medical problem, separating the two at birth is risky. The baby is deprived of the mother's breast milk and both lose crucial time to bond.
"We've got a minister who says she wants to do prevention," Gerrard said. "The best place to start doing prevention is when you identify a mother who is a potential risk."
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