Child protection authorities exist to protect children from abuse and neglect. Also known as CAS, historically, their focus has been on situations in which the abuse or neglect has been directed at children themselves.
Under provincial legislation, the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, child protection authorities have the mandate to intervene when they deem a child to be in need of protection because of physical, sexual or emotional harm already inflicted or the risk that such harm might occur.
Marginalized women and CAS
Women from marginalized communities have particular fears related to CAS involvement with their families. These fears are justified. Both historically and in the present, there can be over-involvement by the CAS in some communities:
- Indigenous communities
- Women with mental health issues
- Women who are substance users
- Families living in poverty
- Racialized families
- Young mothers
Indigenous children are significantly over-represented in the care of child protection agencies.
Child protection investigations can reflect cultural biases towards and about non-dominant cultures and races. Workers may bring personal biases about substance use and mental health issues that lead to incorrect assumptions that minimize the parenting strengths of mothers dealing with either of those issues.
CAS and violence against the mother
The harm to children of being exposed to woman abuse is now interpreted by child protection authorities as a ground to find them in need of protection.
Child protection authorities use a risk assessment model that includes an eligibility spectrum that rates adult conflict to make their determination about whether or not to intervene. The eligibility spectrum rates adult conflict on a scale from extremely severe (adult conflict that causes physical or emotional harm to the children) through moderately severe (adult conflict that creates the risk of physical or emotional harm to the children), minimally severe (adult conflict that creates a minimal risk that children may be physically or emotionally harmed) to not severe (no adverse effects on the child as a result of the adult conflict).
An intervention is only likely at the extremely to moderately severe levels of conflict.
Women’s experience with child protection
While child protection authorities can play a positive role in a family, there can also be a negative impact for both the woman and the children:
- The woman may feel punished and re-victimized.
- She may live with the threat or reality of having her children removed. The abuser may have threatened this to control her, and she now feels he has won.
- She may have to go through the stress of proving her parenting skills when previously they weren’t in question.
- This process puts the blame for the abuse on the abused woman, implying she made a choice to expose her children to the violence.
- If the children are removed, they lose their primary caregiver, which compounds the damage already inflicted on the child.
- Foster care is not always a good alternative.
- The abuser is not held accountable for the abuse; instead the mother and children are punished.
- Being threatened with the possibility of losing her children can discourage a woman from reporting abuse, and the abuser will use this to his advantage.
- When the abuser learns the woman has made a report, she and the children may be at increased risk.
In 2010, the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, which governs all child protection authorities in the province, produced a new woman abuse practice guide, which offers a differentiated response to intervention in cases of children exposed to woman abuse. This approach appears consistent with research that shows children are affected differently and do not all require the same kind of intervention. This differentiated response also makes a commitment to holding the abuser rather than the mother accountable for the violence and its impact on the children.
When there is a family law case underway
When a child protection agency becomes involved with a family, even if a family law case is already underway, the CAS case takes precedence. The family law case stops until the CAS case has come to a conclusion. Any order issued in the CAS case trumps any family court orders. For example, if the mother has interim sole custody in her family law case, but the court orders, because of a CAS intervention, that the children are in need of protection and would be better off living with the father, then that is the order that has authority.