The sad reality of teen mothers who give birth in care

Newborn holding mother's finger
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Elizabeth Wall-WielerGirls who spend time in the care of child protection services have higher rates of teenage pregnancy and teenage mothers are more likely to have their child taken into care. Teenage mothers who give birth when they’re in care are also more likely to have their children taken into care.

Until recently, we didn’t know how often this happens. It turns out it’s all too common.

In a study published in Pediatrics, my colleagues and I followed the children of 5,942 teenage mothers in Manitoba up to their second birthday to see how many were placed into care. We found that among teenage mothers who were in care when they gave birth, 49 per cent of their children were placed into care before their second birthday, with 25 per cent being placed in care in their first week of life.

For teenage mothers who were not in care when they gave birth, 10 per cent of their children were placed in care before age two (2.5 per cent were placed in their first week of life). 

This means that teenage mothers who were in care when they gave birth were more than 11 times more likely to have their child placed in care in their first week of life, and more than seven times more likely to have their child placed in care at any point before their child’s second birthday.

Even though all teenage mothers are at high risk of having their child placed in care, why are teenage mothers who give birth while in care at a significantly higher risk?

Young women in foster care face many challenges, and often lack the financial and parenting supports provided to teenage mothers by their families. Although becoming a mother can be a joyful time and can give young women an opportunity to create a family that they may not have had, parenting while in care comes with additional challenges. These young mothers often feel like they are under constant scrutiny by their social workers and are always needing to prove to everyone that they’re able to parent.

Placement in care within the first week of life is sometimes associated with substance use in the birth mothers, which is more prevalent among adolescents in care. However, treatment for substance use disorder is less successful when women are separated from their children. Programs such as Portage’s Mother and Child Program in Montreal have found success by providing accommodations for mothers and their children in their rehabilitation program. More such facilities should be made available across Canada.

When a child is placed in care, the government takes on the role of surrogate parent to that child. By separating a quarter of young mothers from their infant within the first week of life, and almost half before the child turns two, the government is failing in its role of surrogate parent, and in these cases, surrogate grandparents.

A much greater emphasis needs to be put on dual placements – whenever possible, mothers and children should be placed together. This ensures that mothers and children have the chance to bond. This should be supplemented with specific supports to mothers (e.g., financial, housing, child care and education) to assist young mothers in their transition to motherhood. 

Our study used data from Manitoba, which has the highest rate of children in care among the provinces. However, this is not an issue limited to Manitoba. Canadian provinces with relatively low rates compared to other provinces still have higher rates of children in care than many other countries, and Indigenous children are hugely overrepresented in the child welfare system across the country.

The tireless work of many children’s advocates has resulted in a renewed effort to address challenges in the Canadian child welfare system, specifically in Indigenous communitiesFailing to support young mothers who are in care is contributing to what has become known as “the millennial scoop,” sadly analogous to the systematic removal of Indigenous children in the ’60s Scoop.

Let’s make sure that these families get the support they need so they’re the last generation with this experience.

Dr. Elizabeth Wall-Wieler is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Pediatrics at Stanford University.

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By Elizabeth Wall-Wieler

Dr. Wall-Wieler is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Pediatrics at Stanford University. She received my PhD in Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba. Her research interests include maternal and child health, mental health, the social determinants of health, and linkable administrative data.

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