Keeping Kids Safe from Abuse in BC

Last updated on September 15, 2021

Child abuse is one of the most serious problems facing our society. Abused children suffer and, all too often, the damage lasts a lifetime. Even worse, it can extend to future generations as patterns of abuse and neglect repeat themselves.

Most children do get the love and care they need to grow up strong, safe and secure. But others need our help. That's why it's so important to know the signs of abuse and neglect, and to take the right action when we see them. This guide will tell you how to do that. It also offers advice on preventing abuse.

Whether they're our own children, our neighbours', or a stranger's, we all share responsibility for their well-being. We owe it to them to do whatever we can to keep childhood a safe place to be.

What is Abuse?

Child abuse occurs with alarming frequency. As public awareness of the subject has grown, so have the numbers of reported and confirmed cases. The following definitions are adapted from B.C.'s child protection legislation, the Child, Family and Community Service Act.

Physical abuse is any physical force or action that results, or could result, in injury to a child. It's stronger than what would be considered reasonable discipline.

Sexual abuse is the use of a child for sexual gratification. It includes sexual touching as well as non-touching abuse, such as making a child watch sexual acts.

Emotional abuse is a pattern of destructive behaviour or verbal attacks by an adult on a child. It can include rejecting, terrorizing, ignoring, isolating, exploiting or corrupting a child.

Neglect is failure to provide for a child's basic needs: food, clothing, adequate shelter, supervision and medical care. Neglect is the form of abuse most frequently reported to the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

It's Your Legal Duty

If you think a child or youth under 19 years of age is being abused or neglected, you have the legal duty to report your concern to a child welfare worker.  Phone 1 800 663-9122 at any time of the day or night.

When to Suspect Abuse

Abused and neglected children almost always show signs of their suffering. Some of the most common signs are listed below.

Remember, these are warning signs. They don't necessarily mean abuse is happening. But the more you see, the more concerned you should be.

Warning signs:

  • Unexplained bruises especially on the face, lower back, thighs or upper arms
  • Unexplained bruises on an infant
  • Different coloured bruises, indicating they're at different stages of healing
  • Unexplained fractures
  • Constant complaints such as sore throats or stomach aches that have no medical explanation
  • Lack of proper hygiene
  • Clothing inappropriate to weather conditions
  • Torn, stained or bloody underwear
  • Irritation, bruising, bleeding, pain or itching near genitals or anus
  • Bruises on breasts, buttocks or thighs
  • Sudden onset of nightmares, bed wetting, and/or fear of the dark
  • Sudden change in attitude towards someone
  • Expressing sexual knowledge not usual for their age in their language, behaviour or play
  • Becoming anxious and fearful after being outgoing and friendly

Remember: these are warning signs. They don't necessarily mean abuse is happening. But, especially where one or more sign is noticed in the same child, there's cause for concern.

When a Child Comes to You

Sometimes, a child who is being abused will tell an adult. If this happens to you:

  • Stay calm
  • Listen to them
  • Let them know you believe them
  • Reassure them
  • Tell them you're sorry it happened and let them know it's not their fault
  • Don't promise to keep it a secret
  • Don't say everything will be fine now. It may take a lot of time before everything is fine again

If you Suspect Abuse is Taking Place

Report your concernCall 1 800 663-9122 at any time of the day or night.

What the Social Worker will Ask You

When you report suspected abuse, the social worker will ask you about:

  • The child's age, name and location
  • Any immediate concerns for the child's safety
  • Why you believe the child needs protection
  • Any statements the child has made
  • The child's parents and other family members
  • The alleged offenders
  • Any other children such as siblings who may be involved or at risk
  • Any previous incidents or concerns for the child
  • Any other relevant information such as the child's language or special needs

Don't wait until you have all this information before calling. Just tell the social worker as much as you know. They'll also ask for your name, address and phone number and how you know the child. Your name will be kept confidential.

After you Make a Report

If it appears the child may, indeed, need protection, a child protection social worker will start an investigation. This involves seeing and talking to the child and people who know the child, such as their parents, extended family, teacher, family doctor or child care worker.

Depending on the kind of abuse or neglect involved, the social worker may contact other agencies such as the police, the Superintendent of Schools, or the local Medical Health Officer.

If the child is aboriginal, their band or community will also be involved. Or, the information may be turned over to an aboriginal child welfare agency.

How Children are Protected

When an investigation finds that a child needs protection, the social worker will take whatever steps are most appropriate and least disruptive to the child. Children are only removed from their homes when they're in immediate danger and nothing less disruptive can protect them.

When Children are Removed from Their Homes

Whenever a child is taken away from their family for their own protection, a court process starts. A Family Court judge hears evidence from all sides and makes the final decision about who the child will live with, and under what conditions.

Children who cannot safely stay with family members or friends go to foster homes or care facilities that can meet their needs.


Keeping children safe

Whether you're a parent, family member, neighbour or friend, the best way to protect a child from abuse is to have a good, open relationship with them. That means spending time with them, letting them know you care and, above all, listening to what they have to say.

It's important that they understand that they can talk to you about anything – no matter how disturbing or uncomfortable.

  • Encourage the children in your life to talk to you about their day, every day (or as often as you see them).
  • Teach them to tell you if an older person ever asks them to keep a secret.
  • Make sure they know the difference between good  touching (like a pat on the back or a quick hug for something done well) and bad touching, which is any touching that makes a child uncomfortable.
  • Be sure they know it's okay to say “no” to an older person – even if that person is someone they know and trust. Because the tragic truth is, most children who are abused are victims of people they know.

Never shake a child – it’s one of the most dangerous things a parent or caregiver can do. Shaking a baby or young child can cause brain damage, blindness and even death.


Tips for parents and caregivers

Kidnapping by strangers is very rare, accounting for less than 1% of missing children cases, according to the RCMP. Still, we should all take sensible precautions.

  • Never leave a young child alone in a public place – not even for just a minute.
  • Don’t put their name on their clothing. A stranger can use it to gain their trust.
  • Go along when a young child uses a public washroom, even if they protest.
  • Never assume there’s someone else watching out for your child. Always know where they are and who’s looking after them.
  • And, in case the worst happens, keep an up-to-date photo (no more than six months old) with your child’s height, weight, eye and hair colour on the back, along with a description of any birth marks.

There are also a number of things you can teach your child to help them deal safely with strangers on their own:

  • As soon as they’re old enough, teach them their name, address, phone number and parents’ names.
  • Teach them to shout, “You’re not my mother!” or “You’re not my father!” if someone tries to take them away.
  • Teach them to go to a sales clerk if they’re separated from you in a store.
  • Teach them to go to a police officer if they’re in trouble and one is nearby. Never frighten your  child by threatening to call the police if they do something wrong.
  • Give your child a code word for emergencies. That way, a stranger who doesn’t know the word won’t get far, even if they say something like, “Come with me to the hospital; your father has been hurt.”
  • Teach your child to say “no” firmly. Practice shouting it with them. Give them permission to scream it if they’re in trouble.

Where to Get Help

To report child abuse or neglect (at any time of the day or night.)
1 800 663-9122

Kids Help Phone (counseling and referral)
1 800 668-6868

Youth Against Violence Line
1 800 680-4264

Reporting Child Abuse

If you think a child or youth under 19 years of age is being abused or neglected, you have the legal duty to report your concern to a child welfare worker.

Phone 1 800 663-9122 at any time of the day or night.

Statistics: Children in Care

Reports on service trends and outcomes associated with services provided to children and families is available online. These statistics show the number of fatalities of children in care, as well as those receiving other B.C. Government/Ministry services (since 1996).