What to Do If You Suspect Sexual Abuse of a Child is Occurring

by John McKiggan

What to Do If You Suspect Sexual Abuse of a Child is Occurring

You may have heard the term “duty to report” as it pertains to teachers, professors and others who work with minors having a legal obligation to report suspected abuse to the proper authorities in a timely manner.

But you may be surprised to learn that, according to the Children and Family Services Act (CFSA), every single person in the province of Nova Scotia has a legal obligation to report concerns of abuse or neglect of a child under the age of 19 in order to ensure children are protected from harm, and the failure to report is a criminal offence. In other words, we all have a role to play in protecting our children.

If you suspect sexual abuse is occurring and is causing harm to a child, it is important to understand the legal requirements for reporting, as well as how reports are handled once they have been made.

Knowing these requirements will help make Nova Scotia a safer place for children of all ages.

Types of Reporting and Processes

There are three sections of the Act that outline the Duty to Report provisions.

Section 22(2), states that any concerns a child is or may be at risk of harm must be reported to the agency, preferably closest to where the child resides.

Duty to Report under Section 23 of the CFSA

This section makes clear that the duty to report suspected child abuse over-rides any obligation of confidentiality or privilege.

  • Any person in Nova Scotia who has information, whether it is confidential or privileged, indicating that a child is in need of protective services is obligated to report the information to the child protection office closest to where the child resides. This section is important because it places an obligation on lawyers to report abuse even if the source of the information comes from private conversations with a client. For example, conversations between doctor and patient or priest and parishioner are not protected from this obligation to report.
  • The information is to be reported immediately, under penalty of law. If the information is not reported, the individual is liable to a fine of not more than $2,000 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 6 months, or both.
  • If more than one person is aware of the information, it is necessary for each person to report their information to the agency.

Duty of Professionals and Officials to Report as per Section 24 of the CFSA

This section of the Act places broad reporting obligations on just about any professional who may come into contact with children in the course of their employment or professional duties.

  • Any individual who performs professional or official duties with respect to a child has an obligation to report suspected abuse to the agency closest to the child’s home. This includes, but is not limited to, health care professionals, doctors, psychologists, teachers, social workers, priests and clergy or employees of a day-care facility.
  • If, in the course of a person’s professional or official duties, they have reasonable grounds to suspect a child has, may have, is, or is about to suffer abuse, they must report this information immediately.
  • The professional shall also advise the agency of the location of a child if it is known.
  • Any other professional who is aware of the information is also obligated to report the information to the agency to fulfill their legal obligation.

Duty to Report Third-Party Abuse as per Section 25 of the CFSA

This section deals with the obligation to report abuse by third parties other than parents or guardians.

  • The duty to report third-party abuse only applies to children under the age of sixteen. If it is suspected that the child is suffering physical harm, or sexual or emotional abuse inflicted by someone other than the parent or guardian, or the abuse is caused by the failure of the parent or guardian to supervise the child adequately, this must be reported to the agency closest to where the child resides.

Exception to Duty to Report

There is only one exception to the obligation to report suspected child abuse and that is information that is privileged as a result of a solicitor-client relationship.

Filing a Report

If a child has confided in you that they have been, are currently being, or may be abused in the future, it is important to trust that information is true. A disclosure of abuse by a survivor is ultimately the first step in holding their abuser accountable and stopping the abuse once and for all, and should be commended as well as respected with regards to taking proactive action.

If you suspect that a child is being abused or neglected, please contact the child welfare agency in the area where the child lives. It is best if you contact the agency by telephone or in person. To find the child welfare agency in your area, you can contact the agency or district office of the Department of Community Services nearest you for more information.

After regular business hours call 1-866-922-2434 if you believe a child is in immediate danger.

If you have a relationship with the child (especially as a professional), it is important to document any identified changes in the child’s behavior or appearance if abuse is suspected. In addition to serving as potential evidence against the abuser, it is also part of your legal duty to submit as complete of a report as possible to your local agency. This includes identifying information of the child and their parent(s), any reports of disclosure by the child, or any documented observations made by the reporter.

Need More Information?

Remaining silent protects the abusers and those that enabled them. With 1 in 3 females and 1 in 6 males reporting sexual abuse before age 17, ending the cycle of abuse starts with one thing—speaking up and reporting suspected abuse to the agency closest to the child.

That’s why we wrote Breaking the Silence: The Survivor’s Guide to Abuse Compensation Claims. We hope that by reading our resource guide, abuse survivors can learn about  their legal options confidentially, within the privacy of their homes.

Seeking help for yourself—and helping others—starts with breaking the silence. Interested in a free copy of our guide? Contact us or call us today to discuss your case and receive a free copy of Breaking the Silence: The Survivor’s Guide to Abuse Compensation Claims.

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