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Reporting child abuse — FAQ

A stop child abuse sign is pictured in this concept photo by Getty Images.

The deliberate harm or abuse of a child is a terrible thing. Fortunately there are laws in place to protect children against parents or any other adult who would seek to hurt them.

Below are some common questions regarding child abuse and what the law compels you to do about it.

What is child abuse?

The RCMP defines child abuse as “any form of physical, psychological, social, emotional or sexual maltreatment of a child whereby the survival, safety, self-esteem, growth and development of the child are endangered.”

It outlines four main types of abuse:

  • emotional;
  • physical;
  • sexual;
  • neglect.

Am I required to report child abuse?

Yes. Provincial and territorial laws generally impose a “duty to report” suspected child abuse and some detail stiff penalties for failing to do so.

Quebec requires anyone to report physical or sexual abuse, but not necessarily “psychological ill-treatment,” such as isolation, threats, exploitation or exposure to domestic violence. “Professionals” however, such as teachers, doctors or police, must report any kind of suspected abuse.

Many provinces impose this higher onus on “professionals” and sometimes impose harsher punishments for failure to report abuse.

What is the penalty for failing to report?

It varies according to province or territory, but the penalty often involves a fine and possible jail time. Manitoba has one of the stiffest penalties, calling for a maximum $50,000 and 24 months in jail.

Ontario currently has one of the lighter penalties with a maximum fine of $1,000, but has proposed an amendment to duplicate Manitoba’s sentencing.

Is my identity protected?

Most provincial laws specifically demand an informant’s identity be kept confidential unless required otherwise by some judicial proceeding or with the informant’s written consent.

Some provinces, like Nova Scotia, don’t require protection of a complainant’s identity, but instead allow anonymous complaints.

What if my report turns out to be untrue?

Generally speaking, provincial laws say a person can’t be punished, sued or otherwise retaliated against for a complaint made in good faith. However, it’s still possible in some jurisdictions.

Ontario’s law protects people who make a complaint based on “reasonable grounds,” although the question of what’s “reasonable” has led to negative consequences. In 2015, an Ontario daycare owner reported a suspected case of neglect and when authorities exonerated the parents, they successfully sued the complainant for emotional distress and won $10,000.

Knowingly making a false or misleading report is another story. Launching a frivolous complaint against someone else is a provincial offence that typically calls fines and jail time, not to mention inviting also a lawsuit.

Who do I call?

If you suspect a child is in immediate danger, call 911 or your local police.

For ongoing abuse, you can still contact police or the child welfare authorities in your municipality or province. They provide easy contact information for abuse complaints.

Read more:

What is Child Abuse?

Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect