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Reporting suspected child abuse

Portrait of upset little boy holding toy looking at camera, parents in the background sitting back to back

The law protects children from physical and sexual abuse, as well as neglect. Learn how child protection laws work and what to do if you think a child is being abused.

Alert!

This information has been updated to reflect changes to the Divorce Act that took effect on March 1, 2021.

What you should know

Protecting children is one of society’s greatest responsibilities. There are criminal and civil laws that apply to everyone. There’s also a provincial law that aims to protect children from neglect and sexual and physical abuse. This law defines a child as any person under 19 years of age.

Here are some key terms.

Physical abuse means any action or physical force by a parent or adult that could or does hurt a child. It includes:

  • hitting, slapping, pushing, shaking, and choking
  • locking a child in a room or out of the house 
  • using unreasonable force to discipline a child

Sexual abuse means any sexual touching or intercourse between a child and an older person, or using a child for sexual purposes. It also includes making a child watch sexual acts.

Sexual exploitation is a form of sexual abuse that occurs when a child is persuaded to engage in sexual or sexualized activity. Usually this happens through manipulation or coercion, in exchange for money, drugs, food, shelter, or other things.

Emotional abuse is when a child suffers serious anxiety, depression, or withdrawal, or shows self-destructive or aggressive behavior, due to persistent abusive actions by a parent. Emotional abuse can include blaming, rejecting, threatening, insulting, ignoring, or humiliating a child. Emotional harm can also happen to children who see violence in their homes.

Neglect is when a parent fails to look after the child’s basic physical, emotional, or medical needs. This, in turn, endangers the child’s health, development, or safety.

If you have reason to believe a child has been, or is likely to be, abused or neglected, you have a legal obligation to report your concern. You can contact the Ministry of Children and Family Development if you suspect a child could be at risk. You don’t need proof. You just need “reason to believe,” based on what you’ve seen or some information you have. Report what you know.

Don’t assume someone else already reported it. Even if a child protection worker is already on the case, you must still make a report. It also doesn’t matter who the suspected abuser is. They could be a family member, neighbour, or member of your church or temple. They could be a patient or client. They could be your boss or your employee. Your duty to report your concerns takes priority over any confidentiality or privilege that might apply to your relationship with the suspected abuser.

If you don’t report your concerns about abuse or neglect, you’re actually breaking the law.

Tip

The law protects you from being sued or prosecuted for reporting a suspected abuser. But your concerns must be genuine. The law does not protect you if you knowingly report false information, such as saying that someone has abused a child when they haven’t.

If you know a child (or are a child) who is in immediate danger, call the police by dialing 9-1-1 to be connected to emergency services. They will decide the next steps. 

If there’s no immediate danger, you can report child abuse in one of two ways:

  • Phone the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s provincial screening line at 1-800-663-9122 at any time of the day or night. The team answering these calls assesses child protection reports and initial requests for ministry services across the province.
  • Call a Ministry of Children and Family Development office in your area. The ministry's offices are listed on the ministry website.

A child protection worker will take your report to the Ministry of Children and Family Development. The worker will want as much information as possible from you, including:

  • the name and address of the child, the parents, and anyone else involved, and, 
  • the reasons you suspect abuse or neglect.

You don't need to identify yourself

It’s helpful for the child protection worker to have your name. But you don’t have to give it. Unless you’re needed as a witness in a court hearing after criminal charges have been laid by police, your name will stay confidential. (However, it’s always possible your identity may become known as a result of the details of the information you provide.)

After you make a report

The child protection worker will assess the information you provide. They’ll decide on the best way to keep the child safe. They may opt to:

  • take no further action
  • refer the family to support services
  • use a “family development response” 
  • conduct an investigation

In a family development response, a child protection worker makes a plan with the family to strengthen the family’s ability to help keep the child safe. The plan may be used for less serious allegations of abuse or neglect. It’s an intensive, time-limited, supportive approach. It involves an assessment of the family’s strengths and problem areas. It also provides support services to help the family while monitoring the child’s safety.

The allegations of abuse or neglect you report may be serious. In that case, the director under the Child, Family and Community Service Act may decide to conduct a child abuse investigation. This may involve a child protection worker seeing and talking to the child and people who know the child. These may include talking to parents, extended family, a teacher, doctor, or childcare provider. If the child is Indigenous, their band or community may also be involved.

If there are physical- or sexual-abuse allegations, the child protection worker will tell the police, who may conduct their own investigation as well.

Children’s feelings are considered when child abuse is being investigated. 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.

Common questions

Child protection workers may remove children from their homes. Children may be taken into the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development if:

  • that’s the least intrusive option that will protect them
  • a child is in danger of continued abuse or neglect and there are no other ways of keeping them safe

Another option is for the ministry to place the child with a relative or other person who has a significant relationship with them.  

If a child is removed from their home without the parents’ agreement, a court process starts. For details, see our information on child protection and removal.

If the police find evidence that a crime has been committed, they can recommend criminal charges against the abuser. This will result in criminal court hearings. In such cases, Crown counsel (the lawyer for the government) may be in touch with the police and the child protection authorities to make the court experience less upsetting for a child.

Under the provincial Family Law Act and the federal Divorce Act, family violence, which includes child abuse, is a factor for the court to consider when making decisions about what’s best for a child. The court must also take into account whether the child was directly or indirectly exposed to other family violence in the home.

If there has been violence by a family member, the suspected abuser may:

  • not be granted time with a child, 
  • be given limited time, or 
  • be given time with a child on conditions, such as supervision. 

It’s also possible that a court could grant a protection order against the suspected abuser. This kind of order helps protect the well-being of someone at risk of family violence, including a child. It typically prevents the suspected abuser from contacting the child. The other parent can apply for a protection order on behalf of their child who they believe is at risk of family violence. For more on protection orders, see our information on family violence.

Who can help

A child (anyone under 19 years old) who would like to talk to someone about their situation can call the Helpline for Children. This confidential service operates 24 hours a day.  

  • Call 310-1234 (toll-free)

A child can also call or text the Kids Help Phone, another confidential service that operates 24/7. 

  • Call 1-800-668-6868 (toll-free)
  • Text CONNECT to 686868
  • Visit website

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 24-hour helpline at VictimLinkBC.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development has information on their website about keeping kids safe. They also have a booklet Responding to Child Welfare Concerns: Your Role in Knowing When and What to Report.

The Representative for Children and Youth advocates for and supports children and youth. It works to protect their rights and make the child protection system more responsive. 

  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed in April 2020
  • Time to read: 7 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Christine Churcher, Churcher Law

Christine Churcher, Churcher Law

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This information from People’s Law School explains in a general way the law that applies in British Columbia, Canada. The information is not intended as legal advice. See our disclaimer.

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