Methods: Participants in this study completed an online survey that determined eligibility and collected demographic information, and then participated in a semi-structured interview via video conference. Twenty young mothers who experienced child welfare involvement in Ontario while under 25 and pregnant or parenting were interviewed. This was a geographically and racially mixed sample (30% were white, 25% were First Nations, Métis, or Inuit, 25% were Black, and 20% were East Asian, South Asian, or Latin American). The majority (85%) endorsed struggling with mental health concerns, 60% indicated they relied on government assistance as their primary income or reported no income, and just under a third had been in foster care as children or adolescents. We used interpretative phenomenological analysis to identify themes related to young mothers’ experiences with the child welfare system while pregnant or parenting.
Results: Young mothers’ descriptions of their experiences with child welfare reflected the belief that they were subjected to heightened and persistent surveillance, primarily because of their youth. They believed that the circumstances that drove their initial contact with child welfare, often when they were pregnant or still in the hospital after delivery, were also associated with their age. These conditions included their living and caregiving situation, their own history of child welfare involvement, and their financial and social circumstances. Once involved, young mothers described how workers monitored their potential risk to their young children. Still, workers rarely offered services and supports that would actually mitigate that risk. Often workers endorsed that surveillance was required because of their age, but again, they did very little to offset the challenging circumstances these mothers were experiencing. As a counterpoint, several participants described when child welfare involvement was helpful; these were situations in which workers actively listened to their concerns, recognized them as capable parents who needed support, and connected them to resources without judgement or threat of separation.
Conclusions and Implications: Young mothers with child welfare involvement in Ontario articulated how they are considered at-risk and the system’s response to that risk, which was largely characterized as intrusive monitoring with few resources or supports that met their actual needs. These findings suggest that meaningfully addressing the challenges of early parenthood in settings less characterized by coercion and surveillance in both policy and practice is warranted. Where child welfare involvement is necessitated by acute risk or harm to a young mother's child, more supportive and well-resourced approaches may result in greater engagement and more benefit to young families.