What is my duty to report to child protection authorities?

This is the first of two posts on reporting to child protection. Next week, we’ll look at how to manage the impact of making a report.

You will be confronted, from time to time, with situations where you may have a duty to report a situation to child protection authorities because children have been exposed to ongoing domestic violence and, as a result, may be in need of protection.

These situations are challenging.

The two sectors have different mandates, and there can be conflicts between the two.

One of the biggest challenges is that child protection authorities have legislated powers that allow them to remove children from their family, while the violence against women sector has no legislated powers or authority but exists as a service for women who choose to engage with it. As well, the child protection sector has come more recently to a fulsome understanding of violence against women.

Even so, in many cases, it continues to over-focus on the mother as the one who is responsible for ensuring her children are not exposed rather than holding abusers accountable and responsible for the consequences of their actions.

You and the woman you are working with may experience tension, conflict and even a loss of trust if you make a report to child protection authorities because of her fear of the CAS becoming involved with her family.

Nonetheless, like all VAW workers, you have a legal duty to report.

Overview of CAS responsibilities

In Ontario, the Child and Family Services Act gives child protection agencies their power and authority.

Agencies have responsibility for receiving and investigating reports of possible child abuse and neglect, providing services to families that need assistance in the protection and care of their children, arranging for children to live with kin or with foster families when they are not safe at home and arranging for family reunification when that is appropriate.

What is the duty to report?

Section 72.1 of the Child and Family Services Act requires anyone who has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is or may be in need of protection to report those concerns to a child welfare agency.

A child in need of protection is a child who is or appears to be experiencing neglect and/or physical, sexual and/or emotional harm.

Professionals who work closely with children and families have a special duty to report because of their greater awareness of the signs of child abuse and neglect. Any such professional who fails to make a report when one should have been made can be fined up to $1,000.

When is a child “in need of protection”?

The Child and Family Services Act defines a child in need of protection as a child who is or who appears to be suffering from neglect and/or physical, sexual and/or emotional harm.

People are obligated to report to child welfare if they feel a child:

  • Has been physically harmed or sexually molested by a parent or someone else in charge of the child
  • Is at risk of physical or sexual harm
  • Demonstrates extreme anxiety that appears to be due to parental neglect

This can include children who have been exposed to violence directed at their mother by her partner. Exposure includes:

  • Direct witnessing of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional)
  • Overhearing the abuse
  • Seeing the aftermath of the abuse (physical injuries, emotional impact on the mother)
  • Living in a threatening environment for a long period of time
  • Being subjected to abuse themselves that is part of the abuser’s pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour directed at the mother

You have a duty to report if you are working with a child who exhibits physical injuries or signs of emotional harm, such as serious levels of anxiety, depression, and/or developmental delay as a result of this exposure.

The duty also exists if you believe the child is at risk of emotional, physical or sexual abuse or neglect due to the child’s exposure to woman abuse. For example, if a woman you are working with intends to return, with her children, to a highly abusive situation, you may have a duty to report.

For the duty to report to arise, you must have reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is at risk. You do not have to know for certain. It is the responsibility of the child welfare worker who reviews your information to decide if an investigation is required.

You do not have a duty to report every time you support a woman who has children. For instance, you may not have a duty to report if:

  • The children’s exposure has been minimal (for example, the abuse has been strictly verbal and has not happened in the presence of the children)
  • The exposure has been short term
  • The children are older and have not been directly implicated in the abuse
  • The mother has removed herself and the children from the abusive relationship
  • The mother is pursuing appropriate custody and access arrangements
  • The children are engaged in counselling or other support
  • Any ongoing contact with the abuser is safe
  • There is supportive extended family that is involved with the mother and children
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