Van Wert, M., Ma, J., Smith, C., & Fallon, B. (2012). OIS-2008: Contextual Factors to Consider when Interpreting Findings. Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal: Toronto, ON.
The Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect, 2008 (OIS-2008) is the fourth provincial study to examine the incidence of reported child maltreatment and the characteristics of children and families investigated by child welfare authorities in Ontario. When interpreting the OIS-2008 and other research related to child maltreatment, it is important to consider the context in which child protection agencies operate. This fact sheet will discuss important contextual factors to consider when interpreting the OIS-2008.
Ontario Child Welfare System
The Canadian child welfare system is decentralized, with each province and territory independently organizing child welfare legislation and service delivery. Although all child welfare systems share certain basic characteristics, there is significant variation in service delivery across jurisdictions and over time. Some provinces and territories operate under a centralized, government-run system, while others have decentralized systems operated through mandated agencies. Child welfare statutes vary in terms of their investigation mandates, and there are also other important differences in internal agency regulations and policies.
In Ontario, child protection agencies are responsible for protecting and supporting children at risk of abuse and neglect. At the time of the OIS-2008 sampling, 53 Ontario Children’s Aid Societies were in operation, including a system of Aboriginal child welfare agencies. These agencies are private non-profit organizations funded by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.
All individuals in Ontario, particularly professionals who work with children, have a mandatory duty to immediately report suspected child abuse or neglect to a child welfare agency or to the police. After a report is made, a trained intake worker assesses the urgency of the situation and determines if an investigation and/or intervention is needed. If the case proceeds to the investigation stage, child welfare workers evaluate reports of maltreatment using comprehensive guidelines to determine the risk in each situation. Guidelines include the Child Protection Standards in Ontario and the Ontario Child Welfare Eligibility Spectrum. Workers are trained to consider case-specific factors during the investigation, such as the presence of intimate partner violence. After the investigation, child welfare workers determine if any kind of differential response outside of traditional child protective measures is appropriate. Generally, unless a child is in immediate danger or risk of harm, the worker will adapt a customized approach to connect the child and family to resources. If a child is determined to be in need of protection, child welfare agencies will work with families on a voluntary or non-voluntary basis.
The Child and Family Services Act governs child protection in Ontario and outlines principles for promoting the best interests of children. This Act underwent revisions in the year 2000 which resulted in increased funding to compensate for decentralized services in Ontario, a lower threshold for determining “risk of harm” to the child, and increased clarity in the requirements for the “duty to report” for professionals and the public. New standards in Ontario child welfare, which were implemented under the Ontario Differential Response Model of February 2007, increased the emphasis on customized response and promoted a wider range of informal and formal supports for families in the system. The new model and standards replaced the Ontario Risk Assessment Model of 1998. Since the inception of these models, the number of families referred to Ontario child welfare agencies has doubled, and the nature of the cases referred has changed considerably.
Other Contextual Considerations
There are many factors to consider when contextualizing the findings of the OIS-2008 and other child welfare research, in addition to the structure of child protection. It is important to consider the social and cultural context in Ontario, and the impact of this on incidents of maltreatment, risk of future maltreatment, reports to children’s aid societies regarding maltreatment-related concerns, and investigations and service delivery. The population demographics in Ontario also may influence child maltreatment and child welfare services, as well as public and professional awareness about issues of abuse and neglect. It is important to consider the availability of other community and social services outside of child protection available to children and families, and the impact of this availability on maltreatment and child welfare involvement. The presence of informal community resources is also an important consideration.