Emotional scars from growing up in care ‘passed down generations’, UK-first study suggests

Emotional scars associated with growing up in care are passed down through generations, according to a UK-first study.

Care leavers were at greater risk of depression and anxiety, and their children experienced higher levels of psychological distress, according to research by University College London (UCL).

But with the right support network many of these children can “beat the odds to succeed in school, at work and in family life”, the report’s lead author said.

While those behind the study said there had been lots of research on the experiences and lives of care leavers, they said this was the first UK study to specifically look at those who became parents – following their development and that of their children from early childhood to adolescence and into adulthood.

Researchers analysed data from mothers and their children taking part in the UK Millennium Cohort Study, of which 300 mothers reported that they had lived in a children’s home or in foster care during childhood.

Their findings suggested mothers who spent time in care were more likely to have mental health problems than those who had not grown up in care, with 45% compared to 28% being diagnosed with depression by the time their child was nine months old.

The children of this cohort were found to be more likely than their peers to experience poor mental health, especially during mid to late adolescence – with 21% compared with 10% diagnosed with depression or anxiety by the age of 17.

But while mothers who grew up in care were at much greater risk of a range of negative experiences and disadvantaged circumstances in adulthood, more than a quarter (27%) showed resilience – gaining educational qualifications, being part of a working household, and less likely to be living in poverty, the researchers said.

The findings saw mothers separated into three groups – resilient, impoverished and distressed – with the children of the resilient group more likely to get good grades at school than the children of other care leavers.

Resilience was associated with those who had a stable foster care placement but the researchers said the children of these mothers were still more likely to report poor mental health than children whose parents had not been in care.

Lead author Dr Sam Parsons, from the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, said: “This is the first UK study to show that the emotional scars associated with growing up in care are passed down through generations.

“Care leavers were at greater risk of depression and anxiety, and their children experienced higher levels of psychological distress, behavioural problems, self-harm and suicidal intent.

“But, with most care leavers suffering deep and persistent inequalities, more than a quarter beat the odds to succeed in school, at work and in family life.”

Dr Parsons said with high numbers of children in care across the UK, it is “imperative that the Government acts upon our findings to provide targeted and long-term integrated support to care leavers and their children”.

She said: “By extending the eligibility for state support beyond age 21, care leavers can stay with their foster family or in state care for longer.

“Mental health assessments and treatment should also recognise that psychological problems can be passed from one generation to the next.

“An enduring safety net of secure housing and supportive relationships can be a lever for building resilience among care leavers and their families. This is crucial to break the vicious cycle of disadvantage and care experience.”

Ash Patel (pictured), from the Nuffield Foundation, which funded the study, said: “This pioneering research paints a complicated picture of the vulnerability, disadvantage and resilience of care leavers.

“It highlights the persistence and inter-generational nature of the adversity they experience, and demonstrates how disadvantage can be moderated through the provision of long-term care and support.

“The proposal that care experience should be considered a protected characteristic under equalities legislation, to give care leavers legal protections provided to other vulnerable groups, emerges as a clear recommendation from the research.”

Clare Bracey, from Become, the national charity for children in care and young care leavers, said they face “a care cliff of support” and are “expected to become independent overnight without a safety net to fall back on, which can negatively impact on all areas of life, including parenting”.

Paul Carberry, chief executive at Action for Children, said the research is “yet more evidence that our care system is failing too many children and young people and will continue to do so unless it gets the right reform and resources”.

He added: “In this election year, Action for Children is calling for public commitments from all the main political parties to wholesale reform of this broken system.”


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