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Child abuse in time of COVID-19 | Marvin Zuker

Tuesday, September 22, 2020 @ 11:27 AM | By Marvin Zuker

Marvin Zuker %>
Marvin Zuker
The message is loud and clear: “Stay safe at home.” But is that the right message when home may not be a safe place?

We think of work and school as safe havens, places to escape from an abusive home. But what happens when our children stay at home and do not attend school? In a world without possible schooling, who is there to watch and speak up? We know that most reporting of suspected child abuse comes from teachers and education personnel.

How many children will end up in emergency rooms near death because those typically mandated to report abuse cannot or will not? No reporting may well mean minor injuries become major injuries and tragic trips to the hospital.

COVID-19 must force us to rethink how we can provide support for victims of abuse. Online and Telehealth services for counselling and support may not always be the answer. You are not going to get to the truth if you do it over the phone.  

We are living in an environment that research has shown put children at an elevated risk of abuse and neglect; phone checks are not a substitute for fingerprinting, especially in our foster care system. (See Hanson, R.F., Self-Brown, S. and Fricker-Elhai, A.E. (2006). “The Relations Between Family Environment and Violence Exposure Among Youth: Findings From the National Survey of Adolescents.”)

Our schools may well be flooded with new cases of abuse. Are we prepared to deal with them? The reality of course is that so many social factors have put more people at risk than ever before — the perfect storm to foster violence. This was amplified by the Brookings Institute recently (see “What COVID-19 means for America’s child welfare system”).

We may well be losing the system that we have depended on to help recognize and assist our children who are dealing with mental health issues and even suicide: it is called adolescents in crisis. (See “Stress in America 2020: Stress in the Time of COVID-19, Volume One,” American Psychological Association).

For children who do not have the Internet or hardware devices to connect remotely, the pandemic is even more devastating and has the potential for generating even greater inequities.

Our child welfare system is by design reactionary. How do we recognize and address the risk factors for our most vulnerable and ensure our children’s safety?

The European Court of Human Rights has found a positive duty on the part of its Contracting States (see the Istanbul Convention signed by the European Union in 2017) to protect everyone but particularly children under several of its articles.

In its preamble, Ontario’s Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017 (CYFSA) acknowledges that “children are individuals with rights to be respected and voices to be heard.” The aim of the CYFSA “is to be consistent with and build upon the principles expressed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.” The final reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls show that much has still to be done for Indigenous children.

How do you ask a child about abuse, if there are visible bruises on the child’s arms, when their abuser may be standing right beside them or listening in another room? In some jurisdictions, when students click through their teacher’s PowerPoint presentations, a pop-up prompt asks them to register how they feel on a sliding scale. The answer is sent directly to the teacher; no one else sees it.

The basis of the Duty to Report is set out in section 125 of the CYFSA, which became effective on April 30, 2018.

On Jan. 7, 2019, the Ontario Ministry of Education “issued” Policy/Program Memorandum No. 9, Duty to Report Children in Need of Protection. PPM9 sets out s. 125(1) in its entirety but does not set out in its entirety any other subsections of s. 125.

Even more significant — and beyond any and all comprehension — s. 125(6), which references mandated reporters, is omitted. How can anyone concerned with child abuse not set out for educators and others to see who must report under s. 125?

What should the Ministry of Education do?

PPM9 refers to directors of education, ensuring all staff members are aware of and understand the relevant sections of the CYFSA. It would help, of course, if PPM9 actually set out the relevant sections.

The Ministry of Education should insist that all new school board employees complete a training program relating to their mandated reporting as well as complete refresher courses at least every three years. Child abuse awareness and prevention programs should be provided yearly.

Every school should be required to post, in a conspicuous location, the phone number of a hotline that should be operated by the Ministry of Education, as well as a website address that would provide more information.

Mandated reporters pursuant to s. 125(6) of the CYFSA should be dramatically expanded to reflect reality in 2020. PPM9 makes no mention of the 1,000-plus private and independent schools in this province. Nor does it specifically mention that these schools should be notified of PPM9, which is reflecting the duty to report pursuant to the CYFSA and not the Education Act of Ontario.

This is not about regulating these schools. We are all well aware that they are not regulated.

It is about the reality that many teachers, substitute teachers, school administrators, school paraprofessionals and coaches employed by those schools are not members of the Ontario College of Teachers; therefore, we don’t know when, who or how these individuals are sanctioned for their failure to report abuse. They should be specifically mandated to report.

We are failing our children. Do we have the political will to change?

“The virus is destroying many lives and much else of what is very dear to us. We should not let it destroy our core values and free societies.”

— Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić

Marvin Zuker was a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, where he presided over the small claims, family and criminal courts from 1978 until his retirement in 2016. He is associate professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, where he teaches education law. Zuker is the author and co-author of many books and publications, including The Law is Not for Women and The Law is (Not) for Kids.

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