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Children of care leavers risk inheriting parents’ emotional scars  

Today a study from UCL, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, reveals the intergenerational impact of being taken into care, the long shadow cast on an individual’s life and that of their subsequent children, as well as the circumstances that support resilience in such adversity.  

For judges, lawyers, social workers and other professionals, the research provides rare glimpse into what happens after care proceedings are concluded. 

Lisa Harker, Director of Nuffield Family Justice Observatory explains:

“The family court makes difficult and often life-changing decisions about children and yet does so largely ‘in the dark’ with remarkably little contextual information about what life is subsequently like for those who have been placed into care during their childhood.

Research such as this helps us to better understand the intergenerational impact of being in care – and is critical to ensuring that, when decisions are made in the family court, they are made in full knowledge of the likely consequences.”

The researchers found that mothers who were in care during their childhood were at greater risk of mental health difficulties than their peers who hadn’t experienced care, with their children also experiencing higher rates of psychological problems. However, there was evidence of resilience among care leavers. Although they were more likely to experience multiple disadvantages in health, education and employment, more than a quarter of mothers who grew up in care went on to gain educational qualifications and have stable employment. 

The research involved mothers and their children taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study, which follows people born across the UK between 2000 and 2002. Of the more than 18,000 mothers included in the analysis, around 300 (1.7%) reported that they had lived in a children’s home or in foster care during childhood.

Lead author, Dr Sam Parsons (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 and their children were at greater risk of mental health problems, including symptoms of depression and anxiety. Their children also experienced higher levels of 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.”

Find out more about the research and read the full report, policy recommendations and project outputs on the Centre for Longitudinal Studies website –