A home daycare owner in Pickering, Ont., was successfully sued this week for reporting a case of suspected child neglect to the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (CAS). As CityNews Toronto first reported, Tammy Larabie was ordered to pay $10,000 plus court costs to the family of a toddler she worried was being neglected. After an investigation, the CAS did not find any evidence of abuse. The family then sued Larabie. She made a judgment call, and she's now lost her daycare and a substantial amount of money.
In his small claims court decision, Judge Lewis Richardson awarded the family monetary compensation for “emotional distress” brought on by the investigation. The case sets a legal precedent, something the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies (OACAS) said is “very concerning.” The lawsuit sparked worries that people will now hesitate to call the CAS in the future out of fear of legal retribution.
We don’t know all the details to this particular story, but according to the Child and Family Services Act, Larabie did the right thing. She suspected a pattern of neglect and was concerned the toddler was malnourished. According to the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services: “Section 72 of the Act states that the public, including professionals who work with children, must promptly report any suspicions that a child is or may be in need of protection to a children’s aid society.”
The OACAS says adults who call them don’t have to be certain or have any proof of abuse. The Act also protects people from liability, unless the reporting was done maliciously or without reasonable grounds for suspicion. People who work with kids have a greater responsibility to be vigilant about suspected child abuse; if they suspect abuse and do not report it, they could be liable for sanctions.
The result of this case could have an immediate chilling effect on reporting suspected abuse to the Children’s Aid Society, potentially putting already vulnerable kids at greater risk. According to CityNews Toronto, there were 171,000 calls to CAS last year that led to 81,000 investigations into cases of alleged child abuse. That's a lot of calls—and a lot of potential for lawsuits given the number of cases where the CAS found no need to investigate.
In his decision, Judge Richardson noted that Larabie didn’t have enough training to make assumptions about the toddler’s medical condition. But isn’t that the point of the Child and Family Act guidelines? Reasonable grounds is based on an average person using normal judgment. People are supposed to be able to call CAS without proof or training. Daycare workers, teachers, coaches—these are the people who interact with our kids on a daily basis. They're the ones who might be the first to notice if there was cause for concern. I certainly don’t want any of these people to second-guess themselves when it comes to a child’s well-being, heath and safety—but that's exactly what this court ruling could lead to.
The CAS didn’t find any proof in this particular investigation, but I assume Larabie honestly worried that the toddler was in danger. And the CAS did feel there was a need to investigate. As Larabie told City News Toronto, "He [Judge] said that he believes most people in my position would have called the family doctor first." But that's in direct contradiction to the government guidelines.
When my son was in preschool he got a small burn when he grabbed the kettle from me while I was making oatmeal. It happened on the same week he'd given me a black eye after hitting me with his sippy cup. Not to mention I was seven months pregnant at the time. His teacher asked me if everything was OK at home. It was, and I was more comforted by the the teacher's inquiries than offended. I was relieved she had her eye out for the kids under her care. That’s what I want from the adults who take care of our kids.
Hopefully, this lawsuit won’t deter people from contacting the CAS if they suspect abuse or neglect. But if you knew you could be sued for reporting your concerns, would you still do it?
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