Every family is different, so the child protection process is a little different for everyone. The information here is a basic guide only. An advocate can help you understand the process. A lawyer can give you legal advice.
What the law says
The BC Child, Family and Community Service Act says:
- Parents are responsible for their child's health and safety.
- Anyone who thinks a child is being abused or neglected must report it to the Ministry of Children and Family Development (the ministry) or a delegated Aboriginal agency.
- The ministry must look into every report about a child's health and safety, and decide if a child needs protection.
BC law says if a child's safety is at risk, the ministry or a delegated Aboriginal agency must investigate. This means a social worker contacts you or visits your home to ask you questions about your family.
If the social worker thinks there's a serious problem, they might remove (take) your child from your home. But if you're willing to work with the ministry and make changes to keep your child safe, the social worker might leave your child with you. This process is called child protection.
The law to keep children safe and well cared for includes these principles (rules):
- Children have a right to be protected from abuse, neglect, and harm or threat of harm.
- The best place for children to live is usually with their families.
- Parents are mainly responsible for protecting their children.
- If parents need help to care for their children, the social worker should provide support services.
- Children's opinions should be taken into account when people or agencies are making decisions about them.
- Children's ties to family, including to the extended family, should be kept, if possible.
- Aboriginal children should stay in their cultural communities, if possible.
- The cultural identity of Aboriginal children should be preserved.
- Decisions about children's care should be made and acted on as quickly as possible.
If you or your child is Aboriginal and a social worker contacts or visits you to ask questions about your family, they might work for a delegated Aboriginal agency. Delegated Aboriginal agencies have agreements with the ministry to provide certain child protection services to Aboriginal communities.
Why someone might report you to the ministry
Someone might report about your child's health and safety if:
- your baby isn't gaining weight
- your child has bruises, broken bones, or burns that can't be explained by normal activities
- your child tells a teacher or someone else about being sexually abused
- your child is violent or acting out at school
- your child is involved in prostitution, illegal drugs, or crime
Someone might report about your parenting if:
- you leave your child alone or with an unsafe babysitter
- you often send your child to school without lunch or not properly dressed
- you use physical punishment — for example, spanking or hitting with a belt, a wooden spoon, or a stick
- you threaten to hurt or harshly punish your child
- you or someone in your home is misusing alcohol or drugs
- there's family violence in your home
Sometimes people make false reports (lie) about abuse or neglect — for example, to get someone into trouble. If you think this has happened to you, tell the social worker. Ask for as much information as possible so you understand the report and can respond to it. The ministry can't tell anyone the name of a person who reports child abuse.
If a social worker from the ministry or delegated Aboriginal agency contacts you or visits your home, you might be under investigation. Call Legal Aid BC immediately to find out if you qualify for a free lawyer.
604-408-2172 (Greater Vancouver)
1-866-577-2525 (elsewhere in BC)
You have the right to get legal advice.
Parents Legal Centres are Legal Aid BC services. A lawyer and an advocate will help you address the social worker's concerns about your children's safety. The service is available any time after a social worker contacts you.
To find out if a Parents Legal Centre is near you and if you qualify, see the Legal Aid BC website or call Legal Aid BC at the numbers above.
A child protection advocate can also help you understand the situation and your rights.
The law says the ministry must look into every report about a child's safety. If someone makes a report to the ministry about your child's safety, a social worker decides if your child is in immediate danger and whether the ministry needs to investigate. This is called the initial assessment.
The social worker gathers information about the report, you, and your child. They talk to you, your child, and anyone else who might know about the situation. They can also check medical records and other records.
The law gives social workers the right to get information from different places during a child protection investigation. They must talk to anyone who might know something about the situation, and they must look at records that might give them information. They can talk to:
- you, the other parent, and any step-parents or live-in partners
- your child and your other children
- your other relatives, babysitters, neighbours, and staff at your child's school, preschool, or daycare
- your family doctor, hospital staff, and the police
Social workers' guidelines
At all times, social workers need to keep these things in mind:
- The child's safety always comes first.
- The best place for children is usually with their families.
- Aboriginal children should stay in their communities, if possible.
- The child's opinion should be considered when deciding what should happen.
- If support services are going to help parents care for their child, the social worker should help get these services for the parents.
- Decisions about the child's care and safety should be made as quickly as possible.
- The social worker must investigate any complaint in the least disruptive way possible to the child's family.
- Social workers are supposed to be guided by the principle that keeping families together is a good thing. They aren't supposed to remove a child unless the child's health or safety is in immediate danger and this is the best way to protect them.
When the social worker interviews you
- Stay calm and listen to their concerns and advice.
- If you don't understand something, ask them to explain it.
- Be honest with them, yourself, and your child.
- Think about what's best for your child and yourself, and what help you might need to solve any problems.
- Show you want to do everything you can to protect your child.
- Remember what you say and do can be used in court.
- Take lots of notes. Include the social worker's name and phone number, the date, and time of their call or visit, what they said, what you and your child said, and any advice you get from a lawyer or an advocate.
- Keep a copy of any papers you give to the social worker.
After investigating, the social worker might decide:
- your child doesn't need protection
- your child needs protection
If your child doesn't need protection
If the social worker decides your child doesn't need protection, they might close your file and not do anything else. If this happens, ask the social worker for a letter saying your file is closed.
The social worker might decide your child doesn't need protection but your family could use some help.
- They might refer you or your child to support services in your community.
- If they have concerns about your child's safety, they might work with your family to build on your strengths and prevent further problems. This is called a family development response.
- Or they might make an agreement with you about your child's care.
If your child needs protection
If the social worker decides your child needs protection, they have to take action to make sure your child is safe and well cared for.
- The social worker might say your child can stay with you at home but ask you to make certain changes to your home or your life.
- If the social worker decides your child isn't safe at home, they can remove (take) your child from your home. If the social worker say they'll remove your child, or already removed your child, give the social worker the names of family or friends you'd like your child to live with.
Talk to your advocate and your lawyer as soon as possible after the social worker tells you your child needs protection. Remember, if you can't afford a lawyer, you might be able to get legal aid. Call Legal Aid BC immediately. Ask if there's a Parents Legal Centre near you.
604-408-2172 (Greater Vancouver)
1-866-577-2525 (elsewhere in BC)
It's very important to tell the social worker right away if your child is Aboriginal, even if they don't belong to a band or First Nation. If the ministry or delegated Aboriginal agency removes your child from your home, they must:
- notify your child's Aboriginal community representative as soon as possible
- take steps to protect your child's family ties and Aboriginal identity
- consider your child's family ties and Aboriginal identity when choosing a foster home
Your child's Aboriginal community representative could be a person from your child's band, friendship centre, treaty First Nation, Aboriginal community, Aboriginal organization as listed in the Child, Family and Community Service Act, or the Nisga'a Lisims government.
Your Aboriginal representative has a right to:
- receive all court documents
- speak at court
- take part in mediation
In some cases, the best way to keep your child safe can be decided by staying out of court.
In other cases, you have to go to court.
When the ministry or a delegated Aboriginal agency is concerned about your child's safety, you have the right to be involved in decisions about your child's care.
Taking a few slow, deep breaths can help you feel calmer. It can also help to talk to someone who's been through the child protection process.