Frequently Asked Questions

What is child welfare

“Child welfare” is a term used to describe a set of government and private services designed to protect children and encourage family stability. The main aim of these services is to safeguard children from abuse and neglect. Child welfare agencies respond to allegations of abuse and neglect (these activities are called “child protection services”), supervise foster care and arrange adoptions. They also offer services aimed to support families so that they can stay intact and raise children successfully.

Canada’s provinces and territories all have child welfare agencies that can be contacted by the public 24 hours a day. These agencies ensure the safety of children who, for a variety of reasons, may not be safe in their homes. These agencies, grouped together, cover the entire country and are called the Canadian child welfare system.
Although circumstances can vary greatly, most families first become involved with the child welfare system due to a report of suspected child abuse or neglect. Child welfare systems typically:

  • receive and respond to reports of possible child abuse and neglect;
  • provide services to families who need assistance in the protection and care of their children;
  • arrange for children to live with kin, foster families, or licensed group home facilities when they are not safe at home;
  • arrange permanent adoptive homes for children; and
  • arrange and support independent living services for youth leaving foster care.

What is child abuse and neglect?

Child abuse is the physical or psychological mistreatment of a child by an adult (biological or adoptive parents, step-parents, guardians, other adults). This includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional maltreatment, and exposure to domestic violence.
Neglect refers to situations in which a child’s caregiver fails to provide adequate clothing, food or shelter, deliberately or otherwise. The term “neglect” can also apply to the abandonment of a child or the omission of basic care such as medical or dental care.

What are the signs of child abuse or neglect?

Bruises, scratches, burns and other physical signs may indicate abuse and should be investigated. Other signs are much less obvious. For example, a child who appears withdrawn  or emotionally unstable may be showing signs of abuse or neglect. The possibility of child abuse or neglect should be investigated in cases where:
The child:

  • has unexplained or non-accidental marks such as bruises, welts, cuts or burns;
  • has inappropriate clothing or is inadequately protected from the weather;
  • consistently is not clean, is unkempt, or “fails to thrive’’ (this term is used for babies to describe situations such as losing weight, or not
  • reaching developmental milestones like sitting up, walking, and talking at the usual age);
  • shows sudden changes in behaviour such as frequent absences from school;
  • tells someone information that indicates abuse;
  • has sexual knowledge or experience that goes beyond his or her age or stage of development;
  • has not received help for physical or medical problems that have been brought to the parents’ attention;
  • is always watchful, extremely compliant, passive or withdrawn; or
  • comes to places early, stays late, does not want to go home or has a consistent lack of supervision.

The caregiver*:

  • shows a lack of concern for the child or takes a dismissive approach to the child’s problems;
  • uses, or asks caretakers to use, harsh punishment if the child misbehaves;
  • sees the child as worthless, entirely bad, or burdensome;
  • has inappropriate expectations in relation to the developmental stage of the child; or
  • looks primarily to the child for care, attention, and satisfaction of emotional needs.

* Please note that the term “caregiver” can refer to a birth parent, foster parent, or kin parent.

If you suspect a child is experiencing neglect or abuse, please call the Kid’s Help Phone at 1-250-310-1234

What do child welfare workers do when they receive a call reporting suspected child maltreatment?

The child welfare worker will assess the situation to see if the child has been harmed, or is at risk of being harmed, due to abuse or neglect. Most of the time, the child is not removed from the home during the investigation. If investigation shows that the child might not be safe at home, the child welfare worker will take steps to ensure that the child lives in a safe environment while the problems are being solved. If this means that if the child has to be removed from home, the child welfare worker will work with the family to ensure that the child can go home as soon as it is safe to do so. In the vast majority of cases, investigations do not result in the child being removed from the family.

If the child cannot live safely in the family home, the child welfare workers will make arrangements to temporarily or permanently place the child in another home where he or she can be cared for. This is called placing the child “in care.” The first choice for a caregiver in this situation would usually be a kin connection or a foster family.

How do Canadian child welfare systems work for Indigenous children?

Although First Nation children represent less than 6% of the child population in Canada (Statistics Canada), they comprise an estimated 26% of children who are placed in out of home care during a child protection investigation. The percentage of Indigenous children in child welfare systems reaches 60% to 78% in some provinces and territories. The rate of Indigenous overrepresentation is growing larger since each year Indigenous children are brought into care of the welfare system at an increasing rate.

Indigenous child welfare agencies work in one of four main approaches:

  • Fully delegated agencies which are authorized under provincial/territorial child welfare laws to provide a full range of child welfare services including investigations of reports of child abuse and neglect;
  • Partially delegated agencies which are authorized under provincial/territorial child welfare laws to provide family support services, and in some cases guardianship and voluntary care agreements, but are not authorized to receive and investigate reports of child maltreatment;
  • Self-governing models where agencies provide a range of child welfare services pursuant to self governance agreements and/or treaties;
  • Non-delegated agencies with voluntary mandates to provide services to Indigenous people.

The federal government typically pays for child welfare services on reserves, while the provinces pay for child welfare service delivery in places that are not on reserves. Child welfare services provided to Indigenous children will include the Indigenous community as an important element in the lives of children. For example, they will often consult with Elders, band members, and extended family members when making decisions about the best interests of the child. Many child welfare issues in Indigenous communities are hampered by poverty, community isolation, lack of social services infrastructure and higher living costs.

Further information on child welfare for Indigenous children and youth can be found in a number of information sheets produced by the Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal. Please click here to view.