Mothers of children removed from their care are more likely to accidentally overdose, study shows

·3 min read

New research from British Columbia has found a direct link between women who have a child removed from their custody and the increased likelihood those mothers will experience an unintentional overdose — especially if they are Indigenous.

The research, led by the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity at the University of British Columbia, draws on eight years of data collected by studying marginalized women in Metro Vancouver. A peer-reviewed paper on the findings has been published this month in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

Co-author and UBC clinical assistant nursing professor Meaghan Thumath said she wanted to conduct the research after working at a Vancouver pregnancy outreach program for women dealing with addiction issues.

She said time after time she would see women work hard to get clean, go to all their prenatal classes, and then have their baby taken away at birth for reasons Thumath thought were arbitrary, like homelessness or poverty.

"I would see women that were doing so well in their recovery just completely spiral downwards, just be so grief stricken," said Thumath. "It was just heartbreaking."

The study results show it can also be dangerous.

The stats

Thumath said the study showed that, among almost 700 mothers studied, custody removal was directly associated with a 55 per cent increase in the odds of an unintended non-fatal overdose. That number controlled for factors that could contribute to a higher overdose risk, such as prison or homelessness.

Among Indigenous mothers, those odds doubled.

Indigenous children are over-represented in Canada's child welfare system due to colonial policies and the legacy of forced removal of Indigenous children.

In Canada, 52.2 per cent of children in foster care are Indigenous, even though only 7.7 per cent of the country's children are Indigenous, according to the 2016 census.

"We are caught up in a system that rewards failure. We do not have a system that invests in prevention," said Sophie Pierre, former chief of ʔAq̓ am, St. Mary's Indian Band, mentor to Thumath and report co-author.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Breaking the cycle

Pierre said money is needed to deal with poverty and addiction and break the vicious cycle of Indigenous mothers who lose children, who then grow up to lose their own children.

"Instead of investing in preventing that from continuing, we invest instead very, very heavily and more and more heavily in the failure that continues to happen from one generation to the next," said Pierre.

"Child protection should never be an industry."

In January, the federal government passed legislation affirming the rights of First Nations to exercise jurisdiction over child and family services.

But Pierre said this simply shifts the responsibility elsewhere and does not do enough to tackle systemic issues.

"What we end up doing is ... replicating the system that we were trying to get out of," she said.

Recommendations stemming from the study include keeping families together whenever possible, wrap-around supports for women who do have a child removed, and overdose prevention and culturally informed training for social workers.

Researchers are also calling for "large-scale systemic transformation" and Indigenous self-determination and decolonizing approaches to support Indigenous women's rights as mothers.

Thumath also warned about the risks of preventing mothers from seeing children who are in state care during the pandemic — especially given the drug supply in B.C. is "getting more and more toxic" during the COVID-19 crisis, she said.

"Child custody visits are an essential service and we shouldn't be restricting access to mothers to their children," said Thumath.

Read the full report:

To hear Meaghan Thumath and Sophie Pierre speak more about the findings of their study on CBC's The Early Edition, tap the audio link below: