Script 156 gives information only, not legal advice. If you have a legal problem or need legal advice, you should speak to a lawyer. For the name of a lawyer to consult, call Lawyer Referral service at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in British Columbia.
The protection of children is considered one of society’s greatest obligations
In addition to the normal rules of criminal and civil law that apply to everyone, there’s also specific provincial legislation called the Child, Family and Community Service Act, which is intended to protect children from sexual and physical abuse and neglect. The Act defines a “child” as any person under 19.
How is abuse and the neglect of children defined?
The law defines these things as follows:
- Physical abuse: This means any physical force or action by a parent or adult which could injure a child and which exceeds “reasonable discipline”.
- Sexual abuse: This means any sexual touching or intercourse between a child and an older person, or using a child for sexual purposes.
- Sexual exploitation: This is a form of sexual abuse that occurs when a child engages in sexual activity, usually through manipulation or coercion, in exchange for money, drugs, food, shelter and other things.
- Emotional harm: This is defined as a child having serious anxiety, depression, withdrawal or self-destructive/aggressive behaviors due to persistent emotional abuse by a parent, such as scapegoating, blaming, rejection, threats, insults or humiliation. Emotional harm can also happen to children who witness violence in their homes.
- Neglect: This means a parent failing to look after the physical, emotional or medical needs of a child, so that the child’s health, development or safety is endangered.
You must report suspected child abuse or neglect
If you have reason to believe that a child has been or is likely to be abused or neglected or is in need of protection, section 14 of the Child, Family and Community Service Act requires you to report your concerns to the Ministry of Children and Family Development. “Reason to believe” means that you suspect that a child could be at risk, based on what you have seen or information you have. You don’t need proof. Just report what you know.
It doesn’t matter if you think someone else is reporting the situation or if a child welfare worker is already involved with the child – you must still make a report. It also doesn’t matter if the suspected abuser is your neighbour, patient, family member, church, temple or mosque member or another person. Your duty to report your suspicions takes legal priority over any claim of confidentiality or privilege.
It is an offence not to report suspicions of abuse or neglect. The only exception is for a lawyer who may have concerns that involve his or her client.
You won’t be sued or prosecuted for reporting your suspicions
The Child, Family and Community Service Act protects you from being sued or prosecuted for reporting a suspected abuser. This assumes, of course, that you are acting in good faith and believe your concerns are true when you make your report.
How do you make a report?
You may make a report by calling either of the following:
- A Ministry of Children and Family Development office in your area. The Ministry’s offices are listed in the provincial government blue pages of the phone book.
- The 24-hour toll free Children’s Help Line for reporting suspected abuse. Dial 310.1234 anywhere in BC. You don’t need to dial an area code.
If a child is in immediate danger, call the police
Dial 911 for the operator and ask for police assistance.
What happens when you make a report?
The report that you make to the Ministry will be taken by a social worker. The social worker will want as much information as possible from you, including the name and address of the child, the parents, anyone else involved, and the reasons why you think that the child has been or will be abused or neglected.
You don’t have to give your name when you make a report
But it’s helpful for the social worker to have your name. Unless a criminal court hearing results from criminal charges being laid by police and you’re needed as a witness, your name will remain confidential. However, even if your name isn’t released, your identity may become known as a result of the details of the information you provide.
The social worker will look into the matter
The social worker will assess the information that you provide and determine the most appropriate response to ensure the child’s safety and well-being and to help the family care safely for the child. The responses can include:
- Taking no further action.
- Referring the family to support services.
- Where concerns for the safety of the child exist, providing a “family development response” or conducting an investigation.
What is a family development response?
A family development response may be provided for less serious allegations of abuse or neglect when the child’s parents will work cooperatively with the social worker. This response involves an intensive, time-limited, supportive approach. It consists of an assessment of the family’s strengths and problem areas, and the provision of support services to help the family while monitoring the child’s safety.
When is a child abuse investigation done?
If you report allegations of serious abuse or neglect, the social worker may decide to conduct a child abuse investigation. If the allegations involve physical or sexual abuse, the social worker will also advise the police, who may conduct their own investigation as well.
The investigation and prosecution of abuse cases is sensitive to the feelings of children. Whenever possible, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the police conduct a joint investigation to reduce the number of interviews and the anxiety felt by a child involved in the process.
Will the child be removed from the home?
If the child is in danger of continued abuse or neglect during or at the end of an investigation and there are no other ways of keeping the child safe, the child may be taken into the care of the Ministry or placed with a relative or other person who has a significant relationship with the child.
What about criminal charges?
If the police determine that a criminal offence has been committed, they may decide to lay criminal charges against the abuser that will result in criminal court hearings. The prosecutor works with the police and the Ministry in alleged child abuse cases to make the court experience less upsetting for a child.
Is there help for victims of child abuse?
If you or someone you know has been a victim of child abuse, there may be an organization in your community that can provide help and support. If you don’t know who to contact, call the toll-free Victims Information Line at 1.800.563.0808.
Where can you find more information?
- See the link on “Protecting Children” on the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s website at www.mcf.gov.bc.ca. Specifically, refer to the Ministry’s booklet entitled “Responding to Child Welfare Concerns: Your Role in Knowing When and What to Report” found at www.mcf.gov.bc.ca/child_protection/pdf/child_welfare_your_role.pdf.
- For more information on child removal, refer to script 141 called “Child Protection and Removal”.
[updated March 2013]
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