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Canada Babies born to teen mothers in Manitoba’s child-welfare system more likely to be placed in care, study shows

Teen mothers in Manitoba who were in protective care when they gave birth were seven times more likely to have their child taken into care before the age of two, compared with adolescent mothers who were not in care, according to a new study, published on Tuesday.

The odds were greatest during the first week of the infant’s life, when mothers in care were 11 times more likely to lose custody of their child.

These findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, build on previous research that has shown that mothers who were in care are more likely to lose custody of their children.

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“The objective of this study, essentially, was to start to put some numbers to how often this cycle occurs,” says lead author Elizabeth Wall-Wieler, a doctoral candidate at the University of Manitoba’s department of community health sciences.

The study examined data for two groups, the first consisting of 576 teen mothers in Manitoba, who were in the care of child-protection services when they gave birth to their first child, and the second consisting of nearly 5,370 teen mothers in the province who were not in care when they gave birth to their first child.

Ms. Wall-Wieler says she and her team did not have the information to compare the intervention of child-welfare services for Indigenous against non-Indigenous young mothers among their sample population. However, in Manitoba, around 90 per cent of children and teenagers in foster care are Indigenous.

According to 2016 government data, Indigenous children account for less than 8 per cent of the total population of children ages 14 and under across the country, yet make up 52 per cent of the number of children in foster care. Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott has described the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in care as a "humanitarian crisis.” Meanwhile, many, including Beaverhouse First Nations Chief Marcia Brown Martel, have referred to the situation as the “millennium scoop,” an extension of the Sixties Scoop, which involved the large-scale removal of Indigenous children to be placed with non-Indigenous families starting from the 1950s into the 80s.

Ashley Bach, director for B.C. at the non-profit organization Youth In Care Canada, has experienced and seen this cycle first hand.

Within days of her birth, Ms. Bach, now 23, was taken away from her biological mother and placed into foster care. Ms. Bach’s grandmother was also removed from her family as a child and placed into the residential-school system. And Ms. Bach’s biological mother, a member of Mishkeegogamang First Nation, was placed into foster care in Ontario, and ran away, winding up in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. While in B.C., she gave birth to Ms. Bach.

Ms. Bach’s foster family, which eventually adopted her, fostered a total of more than 30 other children, all of them First Nations, Inuit or Métis. Almost all had been taken into care at birth, she says, and almost all had biological parents who had also been in the child-welfare system.

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Ms. Bach characterizes her upbringing as generally positive. “At the same time, I always wonder what could have been if there had been supports in place for my (biological) mom,” she says.

Ms. Wall-Wieler explains adolescent mothers who are in care themselves may be more likely to lose custody of their children because they are under surveillance and social workers are often scrutinizing their parenting. Many teen mothers who are not in the child-welfare system have more resources, such as financial support or help with parenting from their biological families, she says, whereas adolescent mothers in care lack these supports.

She adds there is also a disconnect between the views of adolescent mothers in care and social workers. In the study, she and her team cite research from 2002 that found case workers tended to believe the best way to end the cycle of involvement was to take the children of teen mothers into protective custody. By contrast, teen mothers saw this as a continuation of their trauma and a continuation of the cycle.

Beyond more obvious important measures such as providing housing and financial assistance, social networks are critical for young, and often single, mothers, Ms. Wall-Wieler says, adding they also may need help building strong bonds with their children to maintain custody of them. She says these mothers often lack the role models that others have when developing relationships with their own children.

She and her team also call for adolescent mothers and their children to be placed together whenever possible.

Sophia Ali, executive director of the non-profit counselling centre Aulneau Renewal Centre in Winnipeg, says many of the families with whom her organization works that are involved in the child-welfare system face multiple challenges, including poverty.

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“When those barriers continue, then how can a cycle really end?” she says.

Aulneau Renewal Centre runs a pilot program called the Dragonfly Reunification Program, aimed at preparing families to be reunited with children in care. Within the program, therapists and parent coaches work to help parents recognize and address their children’s cues and to develop stronger relationships.

Ms. Bach says the system of determining which children are at risk also needs to be changed, since it is stacked against Indigenous people and those in poverty. For example, policies like “birth alert,” which identifies expectant mothers who are deemed “high risk,” can unfairly target Indigenous women based on racist and colonialist views, she says. This stems from beliefs that Indigenous people are not capable of taking care of their own children, she says. She also suggests hospital staff and those identifying “high-risk” mothers should receive training to address these inherent biases.

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