Maternal mental illness and the safety and stability of maltreated children

Child Abuse Negl. 2011 May;35(5):309-18. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.01.006.


Objective: Children of mothers with mental illness are at risk for multiple untoward outcomes, including child maltreatment and foster care placement. The purpose of this analysis was to determine the association between maternal mental illness and children's long term safety and stability.

Methods: A multi-sector administrative dataset from the Department of Social Services (DSS) and Department of Mental Health (DMH) was analyzed. The sample was 4,895 low income families (mother and child dyads) first reported to child welfare in 1993 or 1994. Families were followed until March of 2009. Dates of new report and foster care placement were obtained from DSS data. ICD-09 or ICD-10 diagnostic codes were obtained from Department of Mental Health data. Schizophrenic disorders, episodic mood disorders, anxiety disorders and personality disorders were examined.

Results: New reports were more likely for children of mothers with mental illness, regardless of diagnosis. While overall 67% of children had a new report over the course of their childhood, rates ranged from 80 to 90% for children of mothers with mental illness and occurred within a shorter time frame than for other children. In the multivariate models, mood (HR=1.41, p<.001) and anxiety disorders (HR=1.32, p<.05) placed children at greater risk for new reports. The proportion of children with foster placements was more than double for children of mothers with mental illness than for other children. In the multivariate model, anxiety disorders were strongly associated with the risk of placement (HR=1.75, p<.001).

Conclusions and practice implications: Important differences in safety and stability were found between children of mothers with and without mental illnesses, as well as some variability across diagnoses. Since these mothers had already received services our findings suggest that access is not enough. The services they are receiving or have received may be an ineffective approach to helping them parent safely.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Child Abuse / statistics & numerical data*
  • Child of Impaired Parents / psychology
  • Child of Impaired Parents / statistics & numerical data
  • Child, Preschool
  • Databases, Factual
  • Female
  • Foster Home Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Mothers / statistics & numerical data*
  • Poverty
  • Safety
  • Survival Analysis
  • Young Adult