Everything you need to know about child abuse

Find out what's considered child abuse, what to do if you witness abuse and need to make a report, and how to have an age-appropriate discussion about it with your kids.

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The subject of child abuse is unsettling, and yet it’s shockingly common; one in three Canadians say they’ve suffered from it. Here’s what you need to know.

What is considered child abuse?

Social workers, police officers and other child-care professionals operate under set, shared guidelines. Child abuse is an umbrella term that includes five types of maltreatment—physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional harm, neglect and exposure to family violence. Jessica Allen*, a registered social worker in British Columbia who spoke on the condition of anonymity (her employer has a strict media policy), explains that child abuse is defined as behaviour or actions that cause some kind of physical, sexual or emotional harm—threatening a child’s safety, survival, development, self-esteem or ability to thrive. “What wouldn’t be considered child abuse or neglect is parenting in poverty—this is not, automatically, neglect, although it can be a contributing factor,” she says. “Neither is losing your temper once and yelling at your child in an isolated incident.”

What is physical abuse?

Physical abuse is deliberate physical force, including severe punishments that unintentionally injure a child: hitting, shaking, punching, kicking, biting, pushing, choking, grabbing, slapping, burning.

Physical signs: bruises; fractures; bite marks; welts; cuts; injuries in various stages of healing; injuries inconsistent with a child’s developmental stage.

Behavioural signs: child can’t remember or explain injuries; aggressive and withdrawn; compliant; nervous around adults; flinches if touched; afraid to go home.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is ongoing, psychologically damaging behaviour including humiliation, name-calling, threatening, emotional neglect, rejecting, criticizing, isolating, insulting and exposure to domestic violence.

Physical signs: psychosomatic complaints like stomach ache, headache, nausea; bedwetting.

Behavioural signs: depression; acting withdrawn; aggression; biting, sucking or rocking; trouble sleeping; phobias; obsessive-compulsive disorders; developmental delays; overly compliant; speech disorders.

What is sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse is any form of sexual conduct or exploitation directed at a child by someone who has power (older, stronger, etc.), including forced touching, exposing genitals, fondling, intercourse, oral sex, forcing a child to watch or participate in pornography, or sexual exploitation online.

Physical signs: stained underwear; injuries or itching in genital/anal areas; pain urinating; genital discharge; UTIs; excessive masturbation; STDs.

Behavioural signs: unusually advanced sexual knowledge; age-inappropriate or sexually explicit drawings, play with toys, or sexual acts; sleeping disorders; running away; poor relationships with peers.

What is neglect?

Neglect is the inability or unwillingness to provide the basics: food, clothing, shelter, supervision, feeling of safety; medical attention.

Physical signs: pale; malnourished or underweight; tired; poor hygiene; inappropriate clothing for weather; inappropriate school lunches.

Behavioural signs: frequent absences; listlessness; hunger; begging for food; stealing; mentioning lack of supervision at home.

What about spanking?

Although studies say it can cause long-term developmental damage, under Canadian law, parents are allowed to spank their children, and it only applies to tots older than two and tweens younger than 12. (Section 43 of the Criminal Code says parents can use “reasonable” force to physically discipline kids—so you can’t use a belt, or swat a kid in the head, for example.)

What if you witness child abuse?

Maybe it was a kid being berated by a parent in the mall; or a toddler slapped upside the head for not listening to Mom; or a father threatening his kid with the belt when his kid misbehaved at the park. What is a bystander’s responsibility? Should you intervene? Call 9-1-1? And how do you know whether you’ve witnessed a one-time lapse in judgment—that parent’s worst parenting moment—or a clear indication of a larger and ongoing problem?

That’s tricky, Allen says. “There’s a lot of stress on parents these days. Many reports I hear of public abuse are of parents yelling, maybe even hitting their child,” she says. “If, for example, a child is alone in a car and you cannot find a parent or the adult responsible for the child, call 9-1-1. If you locate the adult and she appears grateful that someone was concerned and she acknowledges her lack of planning or good decision-making, it may not need to be followed up with a report.” Allen says a bystander gently intervening and offering to help can be positive. If you spot a parent shouting at her child in a supermarket parking lot, you might try diffusing the situation by saying, “It’s tough shopping with kids. Need a hand getting your groceries in your trunk?”

However, if the parent is upset that you’re getting involved, doesn’t feel she’s done anything wrong, or you get the sense she doesn’t care about her actions, following up with the local child-protection agency is a good idea, says Allen. Get the licence plate number or as much information as you can.

depressed tween girl Why is suicidal behaviour increasing among elementary school children?If you’re worried about meddling in another parent’s business, don’t be. It’s our job to pick up the phone and report what we’ve seen, then leave it to social workers to decide what happens next. “These incidents should be reported so social workers can follow up and assess if the incident is an indicator of a pattern of abuse or neglect, or simply a lack of parenting skills, a result of exceptional stress or some other explanation,” Allen says. The same goes for making a report about someone you know, like a neighbour or your kid’s friend’s parents. It’s tough to know when to intervene in these situations, but the same duty applies: Report what you’ve witnessed and let the pros take it from there.

“It’s not your job to be sure of—or to investigate—the abuse, but it is your job to make that call,” says Karyn Kennedy, the executive director of Boost Child Abuse Prevention and Intervention, an advocacy and awareness organization in Toronto. “If you make the call and you’re wrong, that’s the best-case scenario. If you don’t make the call but there is abuse, the results could be devastating.”

If you witness the abuse when you’re with your own kids, experts say it’s best to offer an explanation. It can be very confusing for a child to see a parent behaving badly and breaking rules that children are expected to follow (like “no hitting”).

“Start by telling your child that what the parent did is wrong, and that children don’t deserve to be hit—no one has the right to hit anyone else,” says Kennedy.

Registered psychotherapist Kylee Goldman adds that children also need to be reassured that they’re safe. “Often kids who see abuse worry that they could be harmed, too.” She advises saying something like this: “Sometimes we have really happy feelings and we smile or laugh, and sometimes we have really angry feelings, too. Sometimes when people are angry, they say things that aren’t nice and hurt our feelings. And sometimes they forget to use their nice words and hurt other people with their hands or feet. It is never OK for anyone to hurt someone else. If you see someone getting hurt, find an adult like your parents or teacher. They will make sure the child is safe and that the adult learns better ways to show their feelings.”

What happens after a report is made?

Reporting is confidential, and you can ask to remain anonymous. Even though the process differs in every province, there are lots of similarities callers can expect. You will be asked some basic information about the child (name, age, whereabouts and why you’re worried for his safety). “The child-protection worker will then determine whether there is a child-welfare issue and, if there is, they’ll investigate,” Goldman says. Reports are generally responded to within 24 hours to five days. Follow-ups can include interviews with the children and parents, and a home visit.

If the call is serious and the child-protection agency feels there’s impending danger, a child-protection worker and police officer would be sent out together (to the school, daycare centre, etc.) with recording equipment to talk to the child. “They assess whether the child can go home safely or if she needs to be removed immediately,” Kennedy explains. The child may be taken for a medical or mental health exam. The child’s family is often offered support from a social worker or therapist, and is referred to community services like parenting or anger-management courses. If the case warrants what’s called an “apprehension” (taking the child out of his home), social workers may take him into their care and report to the court within five days. “The judge makes further decisions with the parents present. Every effort is made to support the parents to care for their child,” says Goldman. Overall, the goal is to keep families intact. “In more than 90 percent of calls, we try to work with the family to address safety concerns and keep the child safe.”

Explaining child abuse to kids at every age

If you have a little one in elementary school, you might have already had this safety discussion—some schools (depending on the province) start abuse-prevention programs as early as grade two, and the Red Cross has a program for five- to nine-year-olds.

“It’s all about teaching kids to trust and listen to their ‘Uh-oh feeling,’ and making sure they have healthy self-esteem,” Kennedy says. “Kids who don’t feel good about themselves are more likely to be controlled and manipulated, and can become targets of abuse and bullying.”

Letting your kids know they can come to you with any problem, being as present as possible when you’re with your family, and really listening to kids when they’re speaking are all important. (Not checking your phone or keeping one eye on the news while they’re telling you about their day is a skill most of us could work on.)

As your kids start having playdates outside of your house, meet their friends, their friends’ parents and anyone else who they’ll be with. Reiterate that adults are responsible for protecting them, not hurting them. “Remind children to trust their instincts, and if they have a worry, they can tell you about it,” says Kennedy. She adds that the warnings kids of the ’80s and ’90s might have grown up hearing are not recommended today. “It’s not enough to say ‘if someone touches you under your bathing suit, you should run,’” she says. Kids should know that all touching can and should be talked about, and if an adult suggests keeping any touch a secret, they should tell Mom or Dad.

“Consider your child’s developmental stage, and keep the message simple,” says Goldman. “Don’t put adult issues on children, as some children may take on a sense of responsibility, or experience feelings of guilt (why not me?), fear (it could happen to me) and worry (what will happen to those kids?).”

1–3 years old: “At this stage it is more about providing safety for the child, since toddlers don’t have the cognitive ability to keep themselves safe,” Goldman says. It’s a good time to start teaching body awareness by identifying the body parts that are private, and those that aren’t.

3–5 years old: Teach preschoolers the difference between good and bad secrets. (A “good secret” is a surprise Mother’s Day card made at school with the teacher, for example. A “bad secret” is anything she’s told not to ever repeat to Mom and Dad.) You can also start talking about community helpers: people they can go to if they need help, like their teacher, a policewoman or a fireman. You can also teach about “inside hurts” and “outside hurts,” says Goldman. An “inside hurt” is something that hurts feelings, like when Dad calls Mom mean names all the time, or when there’s a lot of scary yelling going on. “Outside hurts” are things that hurt our body on the outside, like being hit really hard or touched in a private place. “The Hands Are Not for Hitting book series help kids this age understand what actions are and are not OK to do with their bodies,” says Goldman.

6+ years old: At this age, go ahead and teach kids it’s OK to say “no” if a person or situation makes them feel uncomfortable. Parents can also offer kids healthy ways to express their feelings and teach them to avoid the unhealthy ways to express emotion (like hitting, kicking, and name-calling). Keep using play-based or scenario-style techniques. When you think your school-ager is ready, have him help you create a safety plan, including community helpers he can speak to and a phone list with emergency numbers, that will help if someone’s hurting him.

Three myths about child abuse

Common myth: Abusers are often strangers.

Fact: The RCMP says that one-third of child abuse cases involve family members. Parents commit more than half of all physical assaults and sexual offences against kids.

Common myth: When child-protection agencies get involved, kids are usually taken away from Mom and Dad.

Fact: “All child-welfare agencies have the goal of supporting the parent and child to stay together,” says Allen. “When that’s not possible, using family or friends to care for the child is preferable.” Kids are only sent to foster care if there’s no other option (but those cases are the minority).

Common myth: Children lie about sexual abuse.

Fact: Very rarely would a kid be lying or mistaken about being touched inappropriately or sexually assaulted, Kennedy says. Untruths can be detected very quickly by the social workers and police officers interviewing the child.

How to report child abuse

Yukon: 1-867-667-3002

Northwest Territories: Contact your local social services office.

Nunavut: Contact your local social services office.

British Columbia: 1-800-663-9122

Alberta: 1-800-387-5437

Saskatchewan: Contact your local social services office.

Manitoba: 1-866-345-9241

Ontario: Contact your local Children’s Aid Society.

Quebec: Contact your local Director of Youth Protection.

Newfoundland & Labrador: Contact your local Children, Seniors and Social Development office.

Nova Scotia: Contact your local child welfare service office.

New Brunswick: 1-800-992-2873

Prince Edward Island: 1-877-341-3101

Helpful Resources

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Boost Child Abuse Prevention and Intervention: boostforkids.org

Child Welfare League of Canada: cwlc.ca

Know the facts

235,842 child maltreatment investigations are conducted across Canada a year (2008 is the last year for which numbers have been tabulated. According to a 2013 report, 125,281 investigations are conducted per year in Ontario alone).

75% of all cases were children younger than 11, and most cases involved exposure to family violence or neglect.

Abuse is a cycle: An abused child is more likely to end up in violent or abusive relationships when he or she grows up.

1 in 3 adult Canadians have suffered from at least one form of child abuse.

69% of reported physical abuse cases result from inappropriate discipline.

60% of reported physical abuse cases involve boys.

69% of reported sexual abuse cases involve girls.

* Name has been changed.

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