A new study out of the University of Manitoba shows kids are not the only ones affected by the child welfare system — mothers of children who have been taken into foster care see a significant deterioration in their health and social situation after apprehension.

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, looked at the health records and other data of mothers whose first child was born in Manitoba between April 1998 and March 2011. Half of the mothers, just shy of 1,600 women, had their child taken into care after the age of two while the children of the other group of women remained in their care.

The results found the rates of mental illness diagnoses, treatment use, and social factors were "significantly higher" for the mothers whose children were taken into foster care, says Elizabeth Wall-Wieler, a doctoral candidate with the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy who conducted the study along with colleagues with the University of Manitoba.

"Research has shown that the children often suffer and we see much higher rates of suicide attempts and suicides among children… but now we also know this has really bad consequences for mothers," she said. 

'Really detrimental effect'

The study used data including child-protection case files, physician claims, hospital visits, and prescription drug data, to identify mental illness in the years before and after apprehension.

For the mothers who had their kids taken away, the researchers compared their rates of mental illness, treatment use, residential mobility, and welfare use in the two years before their child was born, with the rates they suffered afterwards.

They found a 19 per cent increase in depression, a 36 per cent increase in anxiety, and a 97 per cent increase in substance use disorders. Doctor visits increased by six per cent, visits to a doctor for a specific mental illness jumped by 51 per cent, and prescription drug use also climbed 42 per cent.

"We saw that in the two years leading up to the child being taken into care, these mothers had much higher rates of mental illness, treatment use, and social instability, but in the two years after, their mental health deteriorated much more and they used much more treatments," explained Wall-Wieler. "It's indicating that having a child taken into care can actually have a really detrimental effect for her health and wellbeing."

Barrier to reunification?

Wall-Wieler says previous research has shown the things the researchers looked at — mental illness, substance abuse, and poverty — are the very issues that often keep mothers from being able to get their children back after apprehension.

"Our research shows that the simple act of having a child taken into care can actually worsen these outcomes," she said. "And so without the supports to try and prevent mother's health from deteriorating, the stress of having a child taken into care can itself become a barrier in being able to be reunified with her child."

While researchers didn't interview the mothers directly for this study, other studies have, and Wall-Wieler says those women have described having a child apprehended as a "living death".

"They no longer have control over how they're able to interact with their child, but there is also no closure," she said. "This ambiguous state can actually have very bad consequences for mental health."

Wall-Wieler says the new research "adds another layer to some of the damaging effects of child apprehension" and she's hopeful it may eventually help lead to changes in how the system works.

"A lot of neglect is actually due to poverty, and so I think that providing families with more financial support could help, but also providing mothers and families with more mental health supports if there is instability — that would prevent some children from being taken into care," she said. "I think we need to provide more support for families to prevent children from going into care in the first place."

The issue is particularly relevant in Manitoba, which has one of the highest rates of child welfare in Canada, with a disproportionate number from Indigenous families.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said last month that in Manitoba, there are a total of 11,000 children in care and 10,000 are Indigenous children.

"This is very much reminiscent of the residential school system where children are being scooped up from their homes, taken away from their family and we will pay the price for this for generations to come," she said.