Press Releases

Forcible separation of children from mothers increases the odds of unintended overdose, with disproportionate harms to Indigenous mothers

December 15, 2020   |   Press Releases

NEW 8-year study on the harms of child custody removal on maternal health

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, November 19, 2020 A new peer-review paper published this month in the International Journal of Drug Policy demonstrates that child custody removal is directly associated with risk of unintended overdose. The paper draws on eight years of longitudinal data from two long-term community-based research projects of marginalized women led by the Centre for Gender & Sexual Health Equity (CGSHE) at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

This research highlights the immediate importance of large-scale systemic change to child welfare systems and an urgent need to recognize the unintended harms of child removal on women’s health. Child custody removal disproportionately targets communities marginalized due to social and economic disadvantages. Indigenous people’s child custody removal is deeply embedded in ongoing racist policies and colonial history of forced family separation and genocide.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated this crisis as more women than ever are being denied access to their children undergoing child custody investigations under misguided efforts to mitigate COVID-19. According to first author, Meaghan Thumath, RN, a Clinical Assistant Professor at CGSHE and the UBC School of Nursing and a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, “Child re-unification is an essential service and denying a mother access to their children can result in profound grief and loss, exacerbating substance use and increasing risk of overdose. COVID-19 has also increased the toxicity of the drug supply, making overdoses more fatal. Denying access to children can be deadly for women.” The authors argue that where possible, families should be supported to stay together: “When children are removed from the care of their mothers, support plans including rapid-access to safe supply and addiction treatment, housing and income support, are critical to prevent overdose,” Thumath said.

This data is drawn from two longitudinal community-based studies at CGSHE of over 1000 marginalized women in Metro Vancouver who were interviewed bi-annually between January 2010 and February 2018. Since inception, these research projects, in partnership with community, include diverse lived experience across the project from expert advisors, staff to co-authors.

Key Findings

  • Among 696 mothers, two out of every five mothers (40%) reported having a child removed from their care by the state
  • Unintended, non-fatal overdose rates were high, with 35.1% of women reporting an overdose
  • Child custody removal was directly associated with a 55% increased odds of unintended non-fatal overdose, after adjusting for a number of factors
  • Among Indigenous mothers, child custody removal doubled the odds of unintended non-fatal overdose

In Canada, an estimated 65,000 children are currently in care of the child welfare authorities at a population rate of 1-3% of children, one of the highest in the world. Due to historical and ongoing colonial welfare policies and legacy of forced removal of Indigenous children, Indigenous children are overrepresented in the Canada’s child welfare system. While comprising only 5.5% of children under age 14 in care in Canada, Indigenous children make up approximately 55% of children under age 14 in care.

Dr. Brittany Bingham, MPH, PhD of the Shíshálh Nation and Director of Indigenous Research at the CGSHE and co-author, explained: “The removal of Indigenous children and subsequent trauma that results for Indigenous mothers seen is a symbol of the continued colonial and genocidal assault on Indigenous women. Urgent action is needed that decolonizes and overhauls child welfare systems to make space for Indigenous self-determination and community responses.”

Urgent Policy Recommendations

  • Families need to be supported to stay together, wherever possible
  • Large scale systemic transformation, Indigenous Self-Determination and decolonizing approaches are essential to support Indigenous women’s rights as mothers.
  • Mothers who have had a child removed need immediate wrap-around support including expedited treatment referrals, housing and income support
  • Social workers and health care staff who support mothers need training in overdose prevention, cultural safety and trauma-informed practice to support family re-unification

Co-author, Sophie Pierre, Former chief of ʔAq̓am, St. Mary’s Indian Band, former Chief Commissioner and Trudeau Foundation Mentor added: “The investment we make today in supporting mothers and children will be realized ten-fold as will the lack of investment, as our present experience continues to show us relentlessly!”



UBC Communications Lead at CGSHE | 236.818.7763 |

Click here to access the press release in pdf form.