Shifting definitions of emotional maltreatment: An analysis child welfare investigation laws and practices in Canada


Trocmé, Nico
MacLaurin, Bruce
Chamberland, Claire
Chabot, Martin
Esposito, Tonino

Year of Publication: 
Child Abuse and Neglect, 35(10), 831-840

Objective: Although there is growing evidence that the emotional dimensions of child maltreatment are particularly damaging, the feasibility and appropriateness of including emotional maltreatment (EM) in child welfare statutes continues to be questioned. Unlike physical and sexual abuse where investigations focus on discreet incidents of maltreatment, EM is not as easily defined and delimited. Through a review of legislation and child welfare investigation practices in Canada, this paper examines (1) whether Canadian child welfare services respond to EM with the same level of perseverance as with other forms of maltreatment and (2) the extent to which the introduction in 2008 of a more specific EM taxonomy distinguishes between EM and family problems that could lead to EM. Method: Following an analysis of the legislative framework for EM across Canada, investigations practices in Canada are examined using data from the 1998, 2003 and 2008 cycles of the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS). Using data from the 2008 cycle, EM investigations are compared to other maltreatment investigations for all of Canada (N = 15,980). Changes in EM investigations over time are then compared using data from the three cycles of the study, excluding Québec because of limited data availability in 2003 (N = 5,360 in 1998, 11,562 in 2003 and 14,050 in 2008). Results: EM is included as a form of reportable maltreatment in all provincial and territorial statutes in Canada. Over 11,000 cases of EM were substantiated in Canada in 2008, at a rate of 1.86 cases per 1,000 children. While EM investigations were substantiated at a lower rate as other forms of maltreatment, a higher proportion of EM cases were referred for specialized services, kept open for on-going child welfare services, lead to an out of home placement, and lead to an application to child welfare court. Using a broad definition of EM the number of investigations classified as EM in Canada, excluding Québec, nearly tripled from 1998 to 2003. In 2008, using more specific definitions focusing on caregiver definitions, the number of investigations classified as EM nearly returned to their 1998 level, with nearly twice as many cases being classified as risk of future maltreatment. Conclusion: EM is a well established category for child welfare intervention in Canada, however, more emphasis should be given to distinguishing between EM and family problems that place children at risk of EM.

Type of Publication: 
Journal article
Canadian CW research