The law protects children from sexual and physical abuse and from neglect. Learn how child protection laws work, and what to do if you think a child is being abused.
Understand the legal framework
The protection of children is one of society’s greatest obligations. In addition to the criminal and civil laws that apply to everyone, there is also a specific provincial law intended to protect children from sexual and physical abuse and from neglect. This law defines a “child” as any person under 19 years of age.
Here are definitions of key concepts:
- Physical abuse means any physical force or action by a parent or adult which could injure a child and exceeds “reasonable discipline”.
- Sexual abuse means any sexual touching or intercourse between a child and an older person, or using a child for sexual purposes.
- Sexual exploitation 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 or other things.
- Emotional harm is when a child has serious anxiety, depression, withdrawal or self-destructive or aggressive behaviors due to persistent emotional abuse by a parent. This can include scapegoating, blaming, rejection, threats, insults or humiliation. Emotional harm can also happen to children who witness violence in their homes.
- Neglect is when a parent fails to look after the physical, emotional or medical needs of a child, endangering 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, the law in BC requires you to report your concerns to a child welfare worker. “Reason to believe” means you suspect a child could be at risk, based on what you have seen or information you have. You do not 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 who the suspected abuser is. They could be a family member, your neighbour, or a 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.
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 their client.
If a child is in immediate danger, call the police by dialing 9-1-1. A child welfare worker will determine whether the child is in need of protection.
If there is no immediate danger, you can report child abuse in one of two ways:
- Phone the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s 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 service across the province, 24 hours a day.
- Call 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 Ministry’s offices are also listed on the Ministry website at gov.bc.ca/mcfd.
The report you make to the Ministry of Children and Family Development will be taken by a child welfare worker. The 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 the child has been or is likely to be abused or neglected.
You do not need to identify yourself
But it is helpful for the child welfare 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, it is always possible your identity may become known as a result of the details of the information you provide.)
Child welfare’s response
The child welfare worker will assess the information you provide. They will decide on the best way to keep the child safe. They may decide to:
- take no further action
- refer the family to support services
- use a “family development response”
- conduct an investigation
In a family development response, child welfare works out a plan with the family to strengthen the family’s ability to help keep the child safe. It may be used for less serious allegations of abuse or neglect. It is an intensive, time-limited, supportive approach. It involves an assessment of the family’s strengths and problem areas, and providing support services to help the family while monitoring the child’s safety.
If you report allegations of serious abuse or neglect, the child welfare worker may decide to conduct a child abuse investigation. This involves seeing and talking to the child and people who know the child, such as parents, extended family, a teacher, doctor or child-care provider. If the child is Aboriginal, their band or community may also be involved.
If the allegations involve physical or sexual abuse, the child welfare worker will also advise the police, who may conduct their own investigation as well.
The investigation 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.
Children can only be removed from their homes if nothing less disruptive will protect them. If a child is in danger of continued abuse or neglect and there are no other ways of keeping the child safe, the child may be taken into the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Alternatively, the child may be placed with a relative or other person who has a significant relationship with the child. If a child is removed from their home, a court process starts. For more detail, see our information on child protection and removal (no. 141).
If the police determine that a criminal offence has been committed, they may decide to recommend criminal charges against the abuser that will result in criminal court hearings. The prosecutor works with the police and the Ministry of Children and Family Development in alleged child abuse cases to make the court experience less upsetting for a child.
Under the provincial Family Law Act, family violence, which includes child abuse, is a factor the court must consider when making decisions about children. The court must also consider whether the child was directly or indirectly exposed to other family violence in the home.
The presence of family violence may result in the suspected abuser having limited or no time with a child, or having time with the child on conditions such as supervision. It is also possible to ask the court for a protection order to protect the well being of the child and limit the child’s time with or exposure to the suspected abuser. Anyone can apply for a protection order on behalf of someone they believe is at risk of family violence. For more on protection orders, see our information on family violence (no. 155).
Children who would like to talk to someone can call the Helpline for Children. This confidential service operates at any time of the day or night.
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 Victim Link BC.
See the Ministry of Children and Family Development‘s 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, seeking to protect their rights and make the child protection system more responsive.
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
Reviewed in August 2017
Time to read: 7 minutes
Reviewed for legal accuracy by
Thomas E. Wallwork