Behind the Story: Birth Alerts Investigation by IndigiNews

The journalists behind the IndigiNews birth alerts coverage share some background on the investigation.

Birth alerts ended in September 2019 when the British Columbia’s Ministry of Children and Family Development announced an end to the practice in which social workers could flag expectant parents who they deemed unfit to hospital staff. Under the system, hospital staff would then alert the social worker when the parent gave birth, giving the social worker the opportunity to intervene and possibly apprehend the child. 

But these birth alerts were already deemed “illegal and unconstitutional” by the B.C. attorney general months before the practice was barred, according to internal government correspondence received after the fact by IndigiNews. Conscious of the implications for thousands of Indigenous families — who are disproportionately impacted by birth alerts — members of the IndigiNews team spent much of 2021 informing the public about the implications of the information it had received through public records requests.

Timeline of the Birth Alerts investigation, courtesy of IndigiNews.

After breaking the story in January 2021, IndigiNews continued reporting on the issue by providing context on birth alerts throughout the country, sharing reactions and calls for accountability from Indigenous community leaders, and amplifying the experience of a Cree Métis mother. Seeking to expand awareness on the issue, the IndigiNews team went deep into the systematic discrimination involved in birth alerts and the long-term impacts not only for individuals but for entire Indigenous communities. The interview with Anishinaabe social work professor Billie Allan, for example, meticulously analyzed how practices such as birth alerts impact reproductive health choices and overall trust in the healthcare system.

IndigiNews’ reporting on birth alerts has already received a Canadian Online Publishing Award, and is nominated for two others. Most recently, the series was nominated for a Freedom of Information CAJ Award. We asked three of the journalists behind the IndigiNews coverage (Anna McKenzie, Brielle Morgan, and Tessa Vikander) how the stories were built and what lessons other publishers could learn from this editorial and journalistic experience.

How did you first learn about this issue?

McKenzie: I knew about birth alerts before I became a journalist because of stories I had heard from other Indigenous women.

Morgan: I learned about birth alerts and their impacts through media coverage, families and communities advocates. 

Vikander: One of our reporters, Bayleigh Marelj, filed a Freedom of Information Request. The documents they received back contained information we were surprised to see. As a team, we built a reporting plan and then got to work quickly. The government tried to retract the documents and stop us from publishing, but we knew we had a right to publish the story and affected communities had a right to the information, so we went ahead.

Why was it important for IndigiNews to cover this story?

McKenzie: I felt a lot of fear delivering my first child because of the threat of birth alerts and the overrepresentation of Indigenous families involved in the child welfare system. I wanted to draw attention to and question the issue to protect Indigenous families from losing their babies.

Morgan: In B.C., birth alerts have resulted in child apprehension “approximately 28% of the time,” according to an MCFD record from 2019. These alerts disproportionately impact Indigenous children and families in Canada — 58% of parents impacted by birth alerts in B.C. in 2018 were Indigenous, according to the B.C. government’s data. These alerts have been called “racist and discriminatory” and “a gross violation of the rights of the child, the mother, and the community” by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. IndigiNews is one of few media outlets with reporters dedicated to covering the child-welfare system. It’s a sensitive space, requiring trauma-informed reporting practices, and there is much at stake for Indigenous children and families.

Vikander: There are many Indigenous families who may have been subjected to birth alerts without even knowing it, so it was important to get the issue back on peoples’ radar. Furthermore, what we learned from the FOI documents was new and hadn’t been reported before. We saw that it was significant, and we were right as evidenced by the proposed class action lawsuit that was later filed on behalf of parents — a direct result of the reporting. The impact of a birth alert, when it leads to a baby being taken away from its parents in hospital, can haunt a family for the rest of their lives.

How did you advance the story after breaking the news?

McKenzie: We have spoken on many platforms, including CBC Radio and APTN National News. We also held reporting workshops through IndigiNews.

Morgan: After this breaking news story, IndigiNews followed up by providing context from across the country, including reactions and calls for accountability from Indigenous community leaders and B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth.

Vikander: After reporting on the status of birth alerts in B.C., we looked at what was happening in other provinces. We also followed up with families who’ve been affected by birth alerts and with lawyers who helped put together a proposal for a class-action lawsuit on behalf of impacted parents in B.C.

How did your reporting divert from mainstream coverage?

McKenzie: This story was born out of a personal experience and was not a traditionally “objective” journalism piece. It also required a lot of trauma-informed care, both for the interviewees and the writers.

Morgan: We uncovered new information, refused to give into attempts by the government to silence us and consistently centered the perspectives of Indigenous people in our coverage. We worked collaboratively with a mother who experienced a birth alert to get her story out there in a good, trauma-informed way.

Vikander: We decided it was an issue that we wanted to pursue for in-depth coverage, and were able to put a lot of resources towards it, both in terms of reporters and editors.

What lesson could other journalists gain from this coverage?

McKenzie: To be brave, have courage and look at the injustice in the eyes. Use the power and privilege of being a writer with reach to draw attention to issues that are negatively impacting BIPOC folks, and to injustices that are occurring that the public may not be paying attention to.

Morgan: There are so many stories to tell about the child-welfare system. We need more journalists in this space who are trained in trauma-informed practices and committed to working slowly and collaboratively with community members.

Vikander: When it comes to what others can learn from our coverage, I think first and foremost of what those with the power to build and fund in-depth community reporting can learn. When a team of reporters and editors is given the resources it needs to shed light on an issue, the time to fact-check and do in-depth interviews and the time to build relationships with those they are reporting on, then their work can have a tangible impact. To do so, they need to not be saddled with the demands of daily story-writing. Without those resources, it’s very hard to do justice to a story such as this.

Strong journalism inspires strong journalism. Through the Behind the story series, we intend to give you a peek behind the scenes of quality journalism: what makes great stories? How are they built? What impact do they have? We will try to answer these and more questions about the work and the processes that go behind strong journalism.

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