Methods: Data for this study are drawn from the provincially representative Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect 2013 (OIS-2013). Information about investigations involving very young children (ages 0-3) and their mothers (an estimated 26,904 investigations) was used to compare mothers who were under 22 to mothers who were age 22 and over with respect to caregiver and family-level risk factors, characteristics of the investigation, and investigative decision-making. A multivariable tree-classification (chi-square automatic interaction detection or CHAID) was specified to document predictors of the determination that there was a significant risk of future maltreatment among younger mothers.
Results: Compared to older mothers, investigated younger mothers were less likely to be investigated for abuse or exposure to intimate partner violence, and more likely to struggle with substance abuse and social isolation (based on the investigating worker’s assessment), receive social assistance, experience residential instability, and live with friends or family. Ultimately, young mothers and their young children were more likely to experience deeper child welfare involvement after an investigation. The children of investigated younger mothers were more likely to be considered at risk for future maltreatment than the children of their older counterparts (30% vs. 21%). This difference persisted at subsequent decision-making. Among young mothers, the assessment that there was a significant risk of future harm was largely predicted by the combination of maternal mental health concerns, receiving social assistance, social isolation, and family composition.
Conclusions & Implications: Young mothers are more likely than their older counterparts to experience high-risk contexts and those contexts appear to be driving decision-making during an investigation. And while they were no more likely to be struggling with mental health concerns than their older counterparts, the presence of such concerns was a primary factor in the determination that their young children were at risk. In a province in which publicly funded mental health services are markedly limited, the child welfare system may be serving as a critical safety net for high-risk young mothers who would not receive timely services elsewhere. Whether this an appropriate response to their complex needs in unknown and should be a focus of future research. Further, practice and policy innovations, both internal and external to the child welfare system, should be considered that would more effectively serve these young families.