Research into practice

The Undeserving Mothers project, which looked at the plight of young mothers in care, a neglected area of study, was carried out in Victoria, Canada, from 1999 to 2001.1

The research included three focus groups with practitioners and in-depth interviews with 12 young women in or from care now aged 16-24 and who were 13-18 at the time of their first pregnancy. Between them, they had 14 children, eight of whom were living with their mother at the time of interview.

The experiences of mothering while in care were largely negative. The young mothers struggled against all the odds to keep their children, but were rarely successful. They characterised their experience as “prevailing on the edge on my own”.

This was a surprising finding because both the young mothers and their social workers subscribed to white middle class views of what is “good mothering”. That is, staying at home, looking after the children and keeping them out of care. This was seen as “breaking the cycle of poor parenting” from their own mothers and fathers that had initially resulted in these young women going into care.

To the frustration of practitioners and young mothers, most of them were not able to “break the cycle”. By becoming pregnant, the young women confirmed the practitioners’ views that they were failures, and that they had also failed the young women. Although the social workers saw this event as a disaster, the young women felt this was the point at which they turned their life around: they stopped being “party animals”. And although they had not planned pregnancy, they were happy that they were. Caring for their child gave them a reason for going on living.

With the birth of the child, the state became parent to the mother and grandparent to the children. The young women, now defined as inadequate mothers because they were young, poor and in care with children, found their relationship had switched to one of unremitting surveillance.

This upset practitioners who felt their work became skewed with child protection concerns rather than welfare ones. The young women felt “the eyes are constantly on me”, but without receiving the resources they required to parent adequately themselves.

They were amazed that the state preferred to force them to give up their children for adoption or spend “a fortune” on having their children being looked after by foster carers rather than giving them modest amounts that would make the difference between keeping their children fed and housed or failing in their duties towards them.

The irony of this situation is that the state itself was unable to model good parenting to the children. In telling us what they wanted from their social workers, the young mothers identified:

  • Continuity – “someone who was always there” and who “would listen to us”.
  • Caring – “show us they cared about us rather than just doing a job”.
  • Set appropriate boundaries, rather than just let them “do whatever”.
  • Provide them with resources for them to “look after their children” and “get off welfare” (this included helping them get a good education to get well-paid jobs).
  • A long-term helping relationship, that is, not “dump” them when they reached the magic age of 19.

In other words, the young women wanted the help they needed to realise the white middle-class dream – self-sufficient parenthood, even if they had become mothers before the time they would have liked.

1 Lena Dominelli, Marilyn Callahan, Deb Rutman, Susan Strega, Undeserving Mothers is available from Lena Dominelli, e-mail:

Lena Dominelli is professor of social and community development at Southampton University and president of the International Association of Schools of Social Work.

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