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Child Abuse During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Canada has reported its first child abuse death since the start of COVID-19 and we’re bracing for a spike in cases of domestic abuse and neglect across the country.

For children at risk, home isn’t always a safe place. This is especially true in the present global climate as the world adjusts in response to safety precautions to protect against COVID-19, such as isolation and social distancing. These measures serve to protect us against the spread of COVID-19, but increases the possibility of high-conflict and unsafe situations behind closed doors.

Further, the closing of schools and children’s programs and activities has removed early warning systems and has placed some children in direct and prolonged contact with their abusers. For some children who were already unsafe prior to COVID-19, school and programs were their safe spaces.

Since the country began social distancing measures in March, reports of suspected child abuse have significantly declined. Teachers, coaches, social workers and other adults are no longer in contact with children, and as a result, are no longer able to observe and report suspected instances of abuse.

In an effort to protect vulnerable children, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at the beginning of April that the federal government will be providing $7.5 million to Kids Help Phone to provide young children with online mental health support during the COVID-19 crisis. This step was taken by the government to provide children with resources through an unprecedented and difficult time, but it’s not a catch-all solution.

From a legal perspective, there are federal, provincial and territorial laws to protect children from abuse, which are called “Child Protection Laws”.In Ontario, child protection is dealt with under the Child, Youth and Family Services Act (“CYFSA”).

According to s.125 of the CYFSA, professionals working with children have an obligation to report abuse to authorities and can face fines of up to $5,000.00 if they fail to do so.Although these professionals have a duty to report, anyone who suspects child abuse can make a report to police. A report can be triggered by nothing more than a reasonable belief that abuse is occurring. At this stage, evidence is not necessary and anyone filing a report is protected by statute from being sued in civil court.

After a report is made, an investigation will follow by police and/or a worker from the Children’s Aid Society in the appropriate jurisdiction. Police and Social Services workers are deemed “essential services” by the government of Ontario and continue to work during the pandemic.

According to s. 74(2) of the CYFSA, a child is “in need of protection” if any of the following factors are satisfied:

  1. the Child has suffered or there is a risk that the child is likely to suffer physical harm, either inflicted by the person having charge of the child or caused by or resulting from that person’s neglect;
  2. the child has been or there is a risk that the child is likely to be sexually abused or sexually exploited, by the person having charge of the child or by another person where the person having charge of the child knows or should know of the possibility of sexual abuse or sexual exploitation and fails to protect the child;
  3. the child requires treatment to cure, prevent or alleviate physical harm or suffering and the child’s parent or the person having charge of the child does not provide the treatment or access to the treatment;
  4. the child has suffered, or there is a risk of the child to suffer emotional harm, demonstrated by serious: anxiety, depression, withdrawal, self-destructive or aggressive behaviour, or delayed development, and there are reasonable grounds to believe that the emotional harm suffered by the child results from the actions, inactions or pattern of neglect on the part of the child’s parents;
  5. the child suffers from a mental, emotional or developmental condition that, if not remedied, could seriously impair the child’s development and the child’s parents or the person having charge of the child does not provide treatment or access to treatment.

A child can be removed from the home for their protection when there is evidence of any of the above factors.However, this list is not conclusive.

When a child is removed from their home, there is a heavy onus placed on the investigators who recommend that a child should be removed from a home to satisfy the court of the criteria listed above to establish that a child is in need of protection. A justice of the peace may then issue a warrant authorizing a worker to bring the child to a place of safety, which can be with a relative or foster care.

Once a child is brought to a place of safety, the Children’s Aid Society can arrange for a temporary care agreement where the Children’s Aid Society will overtake care and custody of the child.

In these cases, parents of a child have the right to legal representation to challenge the removal of the child. The parent(s)’ lawyer(s), or the parents, if they are self-represented litigants, will then need to satisfy the court that it is in the best interests of the child to remain in their care.

At this time, the regular operations of the Superior Court of Justice are suspended pending further notice. For the duration of the pandemic, only the most urgent of matters are being heard by the court. This requirement has been set out in the court’s Notice to the Profession, the Public and Media Regarding Civil and Family Proceedings.

Requests for urgent relief relating to the safety and well-being of a child is considered urgent and these matters are still proceeding before the court. In child protection cases, the initial hearing after a child has been brought to a place of safety are also classified as urgent.

[1] Liny Lamberink, “Child abuse reporting has ‘gone quiet’ and that’s troubling for this Ontario pediatrician”, CBC News (20 April 2020), read online here.

[2] Raisa Patel, “Trudeau pledges more help for vulnerable Canadians struggling with coronavirus crisis”, CBC News (29 March 2020), read online here.

[3] CYFSA at s. 75.

If you suspect that a child in your community is at risk of or is being abused, you should contact local police. If your child has been removed from your care, contact a lawyer as soon as possible for legal advice with respect to your custody and access rights. One of our lawyers at NuriLaw would be happy to speak with you: 416-323-5092.