Maria is twelve years old. Her mother has just married Craig. Maria has a good relationship with her mom, but is becoming aware her mother could be in an unhealthy relationship. Craig swears a lot and calls her mother inappropriate words. Before the marriage, Craig had hit her mom on several occasions and her mom tried to leave. Maria’s mom told her that she has chosen to be with Craig due to her financial situation.

Since the marriage, Craig has moved into the household. Maria is rebellious about this new adjustment as she does not like Craig. Maria’s mom has not told anyone about Craig’s abuse and has told Maria not to tell anyone. At this point, Craig has never physically hit Maria but has been verbally abusive.

However, one night, Maria’s mom is not home because she is working a night shift. Craig, who has cooked dinner for Maria, is telling her to come eat food. Maria expresses that she is not hungry and does not want to eat. Craig becomes agitated at this and orders her to eat her dinner. He yells at her and calls inappropriate words such as “stupid brat” and even threatens her with “if you don’t eat I am going to kill you.”

Maria has now become frightened about the current situation. She decides to hide in the attic of the house. Craig is unable to control his anger.  He eventually finds Maria and hits her.  He leaves bruises on her body. Craig also threatens Maria not to tell her mother or he “will kill her.”

Maria, unsure as to what to do, decides to tell her mother when Craig is not home. However, her mother does not believe she is telling the truth. Maria has reasons to believe that Craig would hit her again when her mother is not home. Over a few months, this abuse persists when Maria’s mother is not home, leaving Maria scared and unsure as to what to do. Her mom continues not to believe her, leaving Maria left to deal with her abuse alone.

Maria considers telling her teacher at school about this abuse, but is unsure as to what can be done.  She does not want to continue living in a place where she feels unsafe.
Legal Information

This blog post covers what happens when a child feels unsafe at home, and the beginning of the process where child protection services become involved with a family.  It does not describe what happens after the first court hearing if a child is removed from home.  For more information about child welfare court from a young person’s perspective, check out this JFCY pamphlet.  For information for parents and guardians on child protection, check out Family Law Education for Women’s page on child protection.
If Maria feels unsafe at home, who can she contact?

Maria has been abused by Craig.  Abuse is harm that can take many different forms, including both words and physical actions.  Many times, abuse takes place between people who are in close relationships, like people in a sexual relationship or a parent and child.  This can make abuse very difficult to discuss and respond to.  However, no person ever deserves abuse, and regardless of whether Maria has argued with or disobeyed Craig, he has no right to hit her.

If Maria tells her teacher or another adult about the abuse, that person has a legal duty to report the situation to the Children’s Aid Society (CAS).  According to Ontario law, every member of the public must contact CAS if they have reasonable grounds to believe that a child is being abused or neglected.  CAS has the authority to investigate situations after they are contacted. This means that CAS will get in touch with the family to find out what is happening.  If necessary, they may act to make sure that the child is safe.  Even if Maria does not tell her teacher, she can contact CAS herself.

The next section discusses what happens if CAS gets involved with Maria’s family.  However, if CAS does not think that Maria needs protection, and Maria disagrees, she can apply to the court to get protection.  This is an option available to young people under 16, and it is called a “third party application.”
What happens when CAS gets involved with a family?

When CAS is contacted about child abuse, it will do an initial screening to decide whether it needs to become involved with a family.  After this screening, it may decide that the child is well cared for and that CAS doesn’t need to be involved.  It may also decide to investigate.  CAS will most likely decide to investigate in Maria’s case, and they will visit her home to talk to her, her mom, and Craig.  CAS may also talk to people lilke Maria’s teachers or the family’s neighbours.  The goal of the investigation is to determine whether Maria is in need of protection.  The fact that Craig has hit Maria is a good reason for CAS to see her as needing protection, and so is the fact that she has seen Craig hitting her mom at home.

If CAS finds that Maria needs protection, it will work with her, her mom, and Craig to solve the problem.  CAS tries not to disrupt families more than necessary , which means that Maria may be able to stay at home with her mom.  However, it will be very important for Maria’s mom to get a lawyer to help her as soon as CAS becomes involved with Maria’s family.  When CAS works with a family to ensure that a child is safe, they will ask the family to sign an agreement called a Plan of Service.  The agreement sets out exactly what is required to make sure that the child is safe.  What is in the plan will depend on what CAS sees as necessary for Maria’s safety.  If Maria’s mom is unwilling to sign the Plan of Service, or she does not follow its conditions, CAS may take Maria from her home.  For example, if CAS does not think Maria will be safe around Craig, and Maria’s mom will not consider living without Craig, this could mean that Maria can no longer live at home.  CAS has the authority to make this decision.

If CAS decides that Maria cannot live at home, they can place her with a family member, in a foster home, or in a group home.  CAS may also call the police to tell them about the abuse.  The police could lay criminal charges against Craig for assaulting Maria.  Assault is a crime that happens when one person touches another person without that person’s permission.  It is possible that Maria’s mom could also face criminal charges if the police feel that she helped Craig with the abuse or failed to properly care for Maria.
What happens if Maria is removed from her home?

If Maria is taken from home without her mom’s consent, there will be a child protection hearing in fewer than five days after removal.  A hearing is when the information in a case is heard by a judge.  The judge decides what will happen next – if Maria will go back home or if she will stay in her temporary living place.  At this hearing, a judge will decide whether Maria will continue to stay where she is placed and what will happen next.  This is NOT the final decision about where Maria will live. There will probably be a very long process until the situation is completely resolved.  Maria’s wishes will always be considered.  The judge may decide that Maria needs a lawyer, who will be appointed by the Office of the Children’s Lawyer, which is part of Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney-General.  This lawyer will represent her in the child protection process, and will talk to Maria about options available to her.  If Maria doesn’t have a lawyer, and feels she needs one, she can talk to the CAS worker who is responsible for her case.
Blog scenario by PLE Team Member and Volunteer Tracy Chen.  Legal information by JFCY.