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Mothers of newborns taken into care three times more likely to have experienced depression

Mothers who have their children taken away at birth are three times more likely to have experienced depression, research by The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has found.

Previous research carried out by the charity had revealed that over half of mothers who had their children removed at birth had mental health related GP or hospital contacts or admissions in the two years prior to birth, compared to less than a fifth of the comparison group.

However, the latest research indicates that the most common mental health disorder among mums who had their newborns taken into care was depression, with around 41% of mothers in the cohort for the two-year measure—over three times higher than in the comparison group of mothers (13%).

“The overall picture regarding mothers’ mental health is of markedly higher levels of vulnerability compared to the comparison group, and this holds for all mental health disorders,” said the research.

The Family Justice Data Partnership’s initial report on infants and newborn babies subject to care proceedings under Section 31 of the Children Act 1989 revealed the scale and rising number of babies subject to care proceedings in Wales, notably in the first year of life.

The mothers in this study represent a subset of all birth mothers of infants involved in s.31 care proceedings in Wales between 2011 and 2018 inclusive.

Findings were benchmarked against an age-deprivation-matched comparison group of mothers who were not subject to care proceedings but who accessed maternity services. The research examined recorded mental health related contacts or admissions in GP and hospital inpatient records during pregnancy (270 days) and within the two-year period prior to the birth of the child involved in the care proceedings (730 days).

A quarter of mothers in the study had records to indicate anxiety disorders during the two years leading up to birth – and this compared to just 11% in the comparison group. Severe mental illness was present in nearly 4% of cohort mothers—eight times the rate in the comparison group

Less than one% of cohort mothers had autism disorders although this was around nine times higher than in the comparison group. At close to 3%, developmental disorders were over 16 times higher in the cohort mothers.

“Midwives play a key role in identifying women with complex social needs, including mental health needs. However, during pregnancy, the time that community midwives routinely have to spend with mothers is very limited and may be insufficient to effectively link women with services or to follow up on service referrals,” said the report.

The research “strongly recommends” that maternal mental health should feature far more centrally in the pre-birth assessments conducted by children’s services. To secure and provide an adequate treatment response to a mental health need, it is important that maternity and children’s services identify any need at the earliest opportunity and that there is proactive planning and support around how appropriate services can be accessed.

Mothers with severe mental health problems require timely intervention during pregnancy as the Nuffield FJO has shown in earlier work that mental health disorders will tend to be one category among a cluster of vulnerabilities.

“For all women involved in care proceedings, family court involvement is an added burden, which will likely exacerbate mental health disorders. To date there has been very limited analysis of how severe mental health disorders are understood or accommodated by children’s services and the courts,” said the report.

“Services such as Reflect in Wales are developing practice responses that recognise the impact of care proceedings and child removal on adults. The findings in this latest analysis add to the evidence base, which is informing the development of these important services,” the report concluded.

Born into care: One thousand mothers in care proceedings in Wales

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