Sexual Abuse Investigations by Level of Substantiation in Canada in 2008

information sheet
Information Sheet #
Published in
Rachael Lefebvre, Melissa Van Wert, Barbara Fallon, & Nico Trocmé
Suggested Citation

Lefebvre, R., Van Wert, M., Fallon, B., & Trocmé, N. (2012). Sexual Abuse Investigations by Level of Substantiation in Canada in 2008. Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal: Toronto, ON.


The Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect-2008 (CIS-2008) is the third nation-wide study to examine the incidence of reported child maltreatment and the characteristics of children and families investigated by child welfare authorities in Canada. This fact sheet examines sexual abuse maltreatment investigations by level of substantiation in Canada in 2008.

Background to the CIS-2008

From 1998 to 2003, the CIS found that rates of investigated maltreatment nearly doubled while the number of investigations did not change significantly between 2003 and 2008. Changes in rates of maltreatment-related investigations from 1998 to 2008 may reflect changes in detection, reporting, and investigation practices rather than an increase in the number of children being abused and neglected. Four changes are particularly important to consider: changes in public and professional awareness of the problem, changes in legislation or in case-management practices, changes in CIS study procedures and definitions, and changes in the actual rate of maltreatment.

Due to changes in investigation mandates and practices over the last 10 years, the CIS-2008 differed from previous cycles in that it tracked both risk-only investigations and maltreatment investigations. Risk-only investigations were those in which a specific past incident of maltreatment was not suspected or alleged to have occurred, but rather a constellation of factors lead to concerns that a child may be maltreated in the future (e.g., caregiver with a substance misuse issue).


The CIS-2008 used a multi-stage sampling design to select a representative sample of 112 child welfare agencies in Canada and then to select a sample of cases within these agencies. Information was collected directly from child protection workers on a representative sample of 15,980 child protection investigations conducted during a three-month sampling period in the fall of 2008. This sample was weighted to reflect provincial annual estimates.

For maltreatment investigations, information was collected regarding the primary form of maltreatment investigated as well as the level of substantiation for that maltreatment. Thirty-two forms of maltreatment were listed on the data collection instrument, and these were collapsed into five broad categories: physical abuse (e.g., hit with hand), sexual abuse (e.g., exploitation), neglect (e.g., educational neglect), emotional maltreatment (e.g., verbal abuse or belittling), and exposure to intimate partner violence (e.g., direct witness to physical violence). Workers listed the primary concern for the investigation, and could also list secondary and tertiary concerns.

For each form of maltreatment listed, workers assigned a level of substantiation. Maltreatment could be substantiated (i.e., balance of evidence indicated that the maltreatment had occurred), suspected (i.e., maltreatment could not be confirmed or ruled out), or unfounded (i.e., balance of evidence indicated that the maltreatment had not occurred).


There was an estimated 174,411 maltreatment investigations conducted in Canada in 2008. Of these investigations, 10,173 investigations focused on an allegation of sexual abuse as the primary form of maltreatment. As shown in Figure 1, 26% of sexual abuse investigations (2,607 investigations) were substantiated by the investigating worker, 14% were suspected (1,452 investigations), and 60% (6,114 investigations) were unfounded. Of all primary forms of maltreatment, sexual abuse investigations were least likely to be substantiated.

Figure 1: Primary category of maltreatment by substantiation level in Canada in 2008

The primary form of investigated sexual abuse by substantiation level in Canada in 2008 is displayed in Table 1. An estimated 524 investigations involved allegations of penetration; 53% of these investigations were substantiated, 12% suspected, and 35% unfounded. Of the estimated 304 investigations for oral sex, 42% of these cases were substantiated. An estimated 3,713 investigations were for fondling and 34% of these cases were substantiated, 9% were suspected, and 57% were unfounded. Sex talk or images (an estimated 441 investigations) was substantiated in 33% of cases and other sexual abuse (an estimated 3,772 investigations) was substantiated in 9% of investigations.

Table 1: Primary form of sexual abuse[fn value=1]For detailed descriptions of the primary forms of sexual abuse, please visit[/fn] by level of substantiation in Canada in 2008^

Overall, for most forms of investigated sexual abuse, the majority of investigations were unfounded. Penetration was the most likely form of sexual abuse to be substantiated.

Figure 2: Malicious referrals in unfounded investigations by primary category of maltreatment in Canada in 2008

Although the majority of sexual abuse cases were deemed by the investigating worker to be unfounded, very few of these investigations were considered to have been made with malicious intent (i.e., were intentionally false referrals). As shown in Figure 2, a malicious referral was made in only 10% of unfounded sexual abuse investigations. Moreover, sexual abuse investigations, as a category, are the second least likely to result from a malicious referral. Therefore, most sexual abuse investigations were reported in good faith as individuals are required by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect to a child welfare agency or to the police.

Figure 3: Child custody disputes in all investigations by primary category of maltreatment in Canada in 2008

Figure 3 outlines whether there was a child custody dispute noted among all maltreatment investigations in Canada in 2008 (substantiated, suspected, and unfounded). A child custody dispute was most likely to be noted in investigations where the primary category of maltreatment was emotional maltreatment (18%) followed by sexual abuse (15%), exposure to intimate partner violence (14%), physical abuse (11%) and neglect (11%). However, in the majority of investigations, across all maltreatment categories, the investigating worker did not note a child custody dispute.

Limitations of the CIS-2008

The CIS-2008 collected information directly from a national sample of child welfare workers at the point when they completed their initial investigation of a report of possible child abuse or neglect, or risk of future maltreatment. Therefore, the scope of the study is limited to the type of information available to them at that point. The CIS does not include information about unreported maltreatment nor about cases that were investigated only by the police. Also, reports that were made to child welfare authorities but were screened out (not opened for investigation) were not included. Similarly, reports on cases currently open at the time of case selection were not included. The study did not track longer-term service events that occurred beyond the initial investigation.

Research Areas

Province / Territory