Teen mothers who are in foster care may be more likely to lose custody of their babies than adolescent mothers in different living circumstances, a Canadian study suggests.
Researchers examined data on 576 teen mothers who were in foster care and 5,366 adolescent mothers who were not. Overall, the mothers in foster care were more than seven times more likely to lose custody of their babies by the time children were two years old, researchers report in Pediatrics.
The greatest risk was in the babies’ first week of life, when teen mothers in foster care were more than 11 times more likely to lose custody than other mothers, the study found. Over the rest of the babies’ first year of life, teen mothers were more than three times more likely to lose custody, and between children’s first and second birthdays, they still had more than twice the odds of losing custody.
“Separation at or soon after birth disrupts mother-child attachment, which is critical in the first year of life and improves outcomes for both mother and child,” said lead study author Elizabeth Wall-Wieler, a researcher at the Max Rady College of Medicine at the University of Manitoba in Canada.
“Not only are the mother and child not able to form secure attachments, but mothers are often traumatized by their loss and cope with things like substance use, which make it even harder for them to regain custody and adequately parent subsequent children,” Wall-Wieler said by email. “The only real risk of mothers and infants living together in foster care is that mothers feel like they are under constant scrutiny by their social workers, and are constantly needing to prove to everyone that they are able to parent, or at risk of losing custody of their child.”
Adolescents in foster care are more likely to become teen mothers than their peers, researchers note in Pediatrics.
Compared to teen mothers living in other circumstances, young mothers in foster care were more likely to have problems with substance misuse, depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and suicide attempt in the two years before the birth of their first child.
Mothers in foster care, however, had higher rates of prenatal care and were more likely to start breastfeeding in the hospital soon after their babies were born, the study also found.
Among mothers in foster care, 25 percent had their children taken into custody by social services within the first week after birth. These mothers, Wall-Wieler noted, “have not had the opportunity to parent their child, so the child was not removed due to lack of parenting abilities, but rather an anticipation that they would not be able to care for their child, or lack of resources to support the mother with her child,” such as not being able to find a foster home that can support both mother and child.
An additional 17 percent of mothers in foster care had a child taken over the next year leading up to the child’s first birthday.
And another 7 percent of teen mothers in foster care lost custody of their children between their first and second birthdays.
This resulted in almost half of teen moms in foster care losing custody of babies before their second birthday, compared with about 10 percent of other teen mothers in the study.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how living in foster care might directly cause teen mothers to lose custody of their babies. Researchers also lacked detailed information on why teen mothers or their infants might have been placed in the care of child protective services.
“This has been attributed to inadequate parenting -the transmission of abuse and neglect across generations,” said Dr. Kristine Campbell, author of an accompanying editorial and a researcher at the Primary Children’s Hospital Center for Safe and Healthy Families in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I don’t think that we can overlook the possibility that the many other challenges faced by young adults aging out of foster care (homelessness, poverty, unemployment and limited educational opportunities) contribute to both parenting stress and to characteristics that may increase the likelihood of (losing custody of babies.),” Campbell said by email.
But there are exceptions.
“I certainly see young mothers with a history of foster care who dedicate every fiber of their being to keeping their children from repeating the experiences of their childhood,” Campbell said.