Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

“Child welfare” is a term used to describe a set of government and private services designed to protect children and encourage family stability. The main aim of these services is to safeguard children from abuse and neglect. Child welfare agencies will typically investigate allegations of abuse and neglect (these activities are called “child protection services”), supervise foster care and arrange adoptions. They also offer services aimed to support families so that they can stay intact and raise children successfully.

Canada’s provinces and territories all have child welfare agencies that can be contacted by the public 24 hours a day. These agencies ensure the safety of children who, for a variety of reasons, may not be safe in their homes. These agencies, grouped together, cover the entire country and are called the Canadian child welfare system.

Although circumstances can vary greatly, most families first become involved with the child welfare system due to a report of suspected child abuse or neglect. Child welfare systems typically: 

  • receive and investigate reports of possible child abuse and neglect;
  • provide services to families who need assistance in the protection and care of their children;
  • arrange for children to live with kin, foster families, or licensed group home facilities when they are not safe at home;
  • arrange permanent adoptive homes for children; and
  • arrange and support independent living services for youth leaving foster care.

The word “child” has a very specific meaning to child welfare workers. Each province and territory has laws to ensure the safety of children. These laws set an age range for protective services, called the “age of protection.”             

The age range for the age of protection differs from one province and territory to another, according to the laws of each. 

It is important to understand that the definition of “child“ in the law covers not only young children but also teenagers (also called “youth”).

The following table illustrates the age range for the purposes of protection in each province and territory: 

Province or Territory

Definition of child for purposes of protection

 Newfoundland and Labrador

 under 16 years old

 Prince Edward Island

 under 18 years old

 Nova Scotia

 under 19 years old

 New Brunswick

 under 19 years old


 under 18 years old


 under 18 years old


 under 18 years old


 under 16 years old


 under 18 years old

 British Columbia

 under 19 years old


 under 19 years old

 Northwest Territories

 under 16 years old


 under 16 years old

To learn more about the differences across child welfare systems in Canada, please review Provincial and Territorial Child Protection Legislation and Policy 2018

 * Note: Children with disabilities are eligible for protective services until age 19.

Child abuse is the physical or psychological mistreatment of a child by an adult (biological or adoptive parents, step-parents, guardians, other adults). This includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional maltreatment, and exposure to domestic violence.

Neglect refers to situations in which a child’s caregiver fails to provide adequate clothing, food or shelter, deliberately or otherwise. The term “neglect” can also apply to the abandonment of a child or the omission of basic care such as medical or dental care.

Bruises, scratches, burns and other physical signs may indicate abuse and should be investigated. Other signs are much less obvious. For example, a child who appears withdrawn  or emotionally unstable may be showing signs of abuse or neglect. The possibility of child abuse or neglect should be investigated in cases where:

The child:

  • has unexplained or non-accidental marks such as bruises, welts, cuts or burns; 
  • has inappropriate clothing or is inadequately protected from the weather;
  • consistently is not clean, is unkempt, or “fails to thrive’’ (this term is used for babies to describe situations such as losing weight, or not reaching developmental milestones like sitting up, walking, and talking at the usual age);
  • shows sudden changes in behaviour such as frequent absences from school;
  • tells someone information that indicates abuse; 
  • has sexual knowledge or experience that goes beyond his or her age or stage of development;
  • has not received help for physical or medical problems that have been brought to the parents' attention;
  • is always watchful, extremely compliant, passive or withdrawn; or
  • comes to places early, stays late, does not want to go home or has a consistent lack of supervision.

The caregiver*:

  • shows a lack of concern for the child or takes a dismissive approach to the child's problems;
  • uses, or asks caretakers to use, harsh punishment if the child misbehaves; 
  • sees the child as worthless, entirely bad, or burdensome;
  • has inappropriate expectations in relation to the developmental stage of the child; or
  • looks primarily to the child for care, attention, and satisfaction of emotional needs.

* Please note that the term “caregiver” can refer to a birth parent, foster parent, or kin parent.

You can get more information on the signs of child maltreatment from the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, operated by the Public Health Agency of Canada. The telephone number is 1-800-267-1291 or (613) 957-2938. You can also call Kid’s Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. Your local child welfare agency is also a good information source. Click here to find the local child welfare agency in your province or territory.

Yes. Everyone has a duty to report child abuse and neglect under Canadian child welfare laws. Professionals who work with children and youth have an added responsibility to report.

You are obliged to report child maltreatment if you know or suspect it is occurring. This is called the 'duty to report'. Every person in Canada has the duty to report known or suspected child maltreatment by law.

Known or suspected abuse or neglect of a child must be reported to:

  • local child welfare services (e.g., children’s aid society or child and family services agency), or 
  • provincial/territorial social service ministries or departments, or 
  • local police

Click here to find your local child welfare agency and phone numbers to report suspected abuse.

The child welfare worker will assess the situation to see if the child has been harmed, or is at risk of being harmed, due to abuse or neglect. Most of the time, the child is not removed from the home during the investigation. If investigation shows that the child might not be safe at home, the child welfare worker will take steps to ensure that the child lives in a safe environment while the problems are being solved. If this means that the child has to be removed from home, the child welfare worker will work with the family to ensure that the child can go home as soon as it is safe to do so. In the vast majority of cases, investigations do not result in the child being removed from the family.

If the child cannot live safely in the family home, the child welfare workers will make arrangements to temporarily or permanently place the child in another home where he or she can be cared for. This is called placing the child “in care.” The first choice for a caregiver in this situation would usually be a kin connection or a foster family. 

There were an estimated 299,217 child maltreatment-related investigations conducted in 2019. Fifty-nine percent of maltreatment investigations involving First Nations children were substantiated (an estimated 19,143 investigations) compared to 46 percent for non-Indigenous children. The actual rate of maltreatment is thought to be much higher due to underreporting.

For more details, please refer to the First Nations/Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect-2019

Although there are some differences from one province and territory to another, the child welfare systems throughout Canada are similar in that their first interest is in ensuring that children are safe. The systems share many common features. They all make it clear that everyone has a duty to report child abuse and neglect. Here are some more common features:

  • The best interests of the child must be considered when a child is found to be in need of protection;
  • The parent’s primary responsibility for child rearing is respected;
  • It is acknowledged that continuity of care and stability is important for children;
  • The views of children are important to take into consideration when decisions are being made that affect their futures;
  • Cultural heritage should be respected, especially for Indigenous children; 

Every local municipality in Canada has a child welfare agency that has the legal responsibility for investigating reports of child abuse and neglect and taking appropriate steps to protect children. These agencies can be contacted by the public around the clock every day of the year.  

The following table shows the provincial/territorial laws and the government agencies that are responsible for child welfare*. Please click on any province/territory links below to find more information on legislation.

Province/Territory Child protection legislation Government agency responsible for child welfare
British Columbia Child, Family and Community Service Act Ministry of Children and Family Development*
Alberta Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act Ministry of Children's Services*
Saskatchewan The Child and Family Services Act (CFSA) Ministry of Social Services*
Manitoba The Child and Family Services Act Department of Family Services
Ontario The Child, Youth and Family Services Act Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services*
Quebec Loi sur la protection de la jeunesse (Youth Protection Act). R.S.Q. c. P-34.1 Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux
Nova Scotia Children and Family Services Act (CFSA) 1990 Department of Community Services
New Brunswick Family Services Act, S.N.B. 1980, c. F-2.2 Department of Social Development
Prince Edward Island Child Protection Act, proclaimed April 2003, C-5.1 Department of Social Development and Housing
Newfoundland and Labrador Child, Youth and Family Services Act (CYFSA) Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development*
Yukon Child and Family Services Act Yukon Health and Social Services*
Northwest Territories Child and Family Services Act Department of Health and Social Services
Nunavut Child and Family Services Act Department of Family Services*

* Please note these names have been changed over the last few years so may be different in older source materials.

In 2019, there were an estimated 59,283 children in out-of-home care across Canada when reported informal kinship services were included in the final count (Saint-Girons et al., 2020). Because child welfare services fall under the jurisdiction of provincial and territorial authorities each province has different legislation pertaining to child protection interventions, making it difficult to compare rates of children in out-of-home care across provinces.

Ultimately, difficulty in reporting and interpreting estimates of children in care in Canada highlights the need for systematic and coordinated reporting methods that include more detailed information on the placement types included, as well as consistent reporting of the proportion of Indigenous children in care.

For information on the number of children in care by province or territory please see the statistics section for the specific province/territory of interest:

British Columbia
New Brunswick
Nova Scotia
Prince Edward Island
Northwest Territories

Although First Nation children represent less than 8% of the child population aged 0-14 in Canada, they comprise an estimated 52.2% of children in foster care (Statistics Canada). The FN/CIS-2019 shows that First Nations children are three to four times more likely to be reported for a child maltreatment-related concern. This initial disparity increases further as various investigation decisions are made, with investigations involving First Nations children being seventeen times more likely to lead to placement in formal out-of-home care. 
Indigenous child welfare agencies work in one of four main approaches:

  1. Fully delegated agencies which are authorized under provincial/territorial child welfare laws to provide a full range of child welfare services including investigations of reports of child abuse and neglect;
  2. Partially delegated agencies which are authorized under provincial/territorial child welfare laws to provide family support services, and in some cases guardianship and voluntary care agreements, but are not authorized to receive and investigate reports of child maltreatment; 
  3. Self-governing models where agencies provide a range of child welfare services pursuant to self governance agreements and/or treaties; 
  4. Non-delegated agencies with voluntary mandates to provide services to Indigenous people. 

The federal government typically pays for child welfare services on reserves, while the provinces pay for child welfare service delivery in places that are not on reserves. Child welfare services provided to Indigenous children will include the Indigenous community as an important element in the lives of children. For example, they will often consult with Elders, band members, and extended family members when making decisions about the best interests of the child. Many child welfare issues in Indigenous communities are hampered by poverty, community isolation, lack of social services infrastructure and higher living costs.

Further information on child welfare for Indigenous children and youth can be found in a number of information sheets produced by the Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal. Please click here to view.

The UNICEF Report Card series has helped answer the following questions:

  1. How well are children in the world's richest countries experiencing their childhoods?
  2. Are childhoods getting better?
  3. What will help countries with similar resources achieve similar, great outcomes for every child?

UNICEF's most recent report released in September 2020, Worlds of Influence: Understanding What Shapes Child Well-being in Rich Countries, Innocenti Report Card 16, compared a number of indicators of child well-being among the 41 countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The countries that were compared are all relatively wealthy in comparison with other countries in the world, and they are all European or North American.  

In the Canadian Companion to UNICEF Report Card 16, Canada ranked 30th among 38 rich countries in the well-being of children and youth under age 18. Canada is reportedly worlds apart from other rich countries in providing healthy, happy childhoods for every child. Canada ranks among the countries with the best economic, environmental and social conditions for growing up, but the poorest outcomes for children and youth.

  • Canada ranks highest in children's academic achievement and exposure to air pollution, the only two indicators in which Canada is in the top third.
  • Canada ranks lowest in child survival (including teen suicide and child mortality), health (including immunization and unhealthy weight) and children's overall life satisfaction.
  • Canada falls below average in more than half the measures of child well-being.
  • Canada has been making progress in reducing child poverty and the number of young people excluded from education, employment and training, though there are wide disparities.
  • Canada has been making little to no progress in reducing child mortality, obesity or bullying.
  • Canada has been falling backward in children's sense of well-being and mental health. 

Access to the World's Apart: Canadian Summary of UNICEF Report Card 16 is provided here.