Your Role as a Relative
Most children get the support they need to grow up secure, healthy and independent. But not always. Some children are abused or neglected. The harm they suffer can last a lifetime.
British Columbia has a law to protect children from abuse and neglect. It is called the Child, Family and Community Service Act. It is administered by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
Relatives also have a role in ensuring the safety and well-being of children. This pamphlet tells you how you can help, if there is a child protection concern in your family.
(Please note: this pamphlet does not address issues around relatives' rights in cases of divorce or separation. For information about these issues, contact a lawyer or your local legal aid office.)
What should I do if I'm worried about the welfare of a child who's related to me?
If you think a child - any child - is being abused or neglected you must tell the Ministry of Children and Family Development. That is the law. Phone your nearest ministry office (the number is listed in the blue pages of the phone book) and ask to speak to a child protection social worker. Or call the Helpline for Children: Dial 310-1234 (no area code needed).
What will happen if I call?
The social worker will listen to your concerns and ask you some questions. They may also meet with the parents and child, and speak to teachers, doctors or other people who know the child and can provide relevant information.
If it turns out that the child is safe but the family is having problems, the social worker may arrange for services like in-home support (someone to provide child care or do housework regularly), counseling, or parenting programs.
If the child needs protection, but is not in immediate danger, the social worker will take whatever measures are most appropriate and least disruptive to the child. These measures might include in-home support or parenting programs. As a relative, you may have a role to play in planning for or looking after the child at this stage. If the social worker decides that the court should be involved, they might ask for a court order allowing the ministry to supervise the child's care. This means the child continues to live at home, but the court orders the family to meet certain conditions, and the social worker monitors whether this is happening.
Children are not removed from their parents unless they are in immediate danger, and there is no other way of keeping them safe.
Are the courts involved when a child is removed?
Yes. The ministry must go to court within seven days to explain why it removed the child. This is known as the presentation hearing. It is usually short. At the end of the hearing, the judge may decide that it is safe for the child to return home without any supervision by the ministry. If this happens, there are no further court proceedings.
If, on the other hand, there are concerns about the child's safety, the judge has two choices. One is to return the child to their family under the ministry's supervision. The other is to order that the child not return home, but remain in the care of the ministry. In either of these situations a second hearing, known as the protection hearing, takes place within 45 days.
During this period, the social worker assesses the situation further and develops a comprehensive plan of care for the child. As a relative, you can talk to the social worker about what you think should be included in the plan. If you disagree with what is being proposed, you may wish to present the court with an alternative plan of care. To do this, you must ask the court to make you a party to the hearing. A lawyer can tell you how to do this. Being a party gives you the right to speak and ask questions in court, and to present any evidence you think is important.
If, at the end of the hearing, the court decides that the child needs protection, it has three choices. It can order that the child remain with or return to their family under the ministry's supervision. It can place the child for a short term with another person, such as a relative, under the ministry's supervision. Or it can order that the child remain in the custody of the ministry. If this happens, the ministry will place the child in a foster home. Sometimes a relative can provide the foster home.
When a court orders that a child remain in the custody of the ministry, it can also make an access order allowing specific people - relatives or others - to visit and have contact with the child.
What if I want the child to live with me?
Social workers are responsible for deciding where children live during their time in care. The law recognizes the importance of family connections, so the social worker will begin by checking whether there is a relative who can provide a safe home. In determining whether the child can live with you, the social worker will consider factors like:
- your ability to care for the child and ensure their safety and well-being
- whether you can take the child right away, and look after them for the required length of time
- the age and needs of the child, and how they feel about living with you
- how the parents feel about you caring for their child
- whether other relatives are interested in caring for the child, and
- the child's plan of care.
The social worker can recommend that the court give you temporary custody, under ministry supervision. This means you can look after the child without becoming an official foster parent. The social worker will keep in touch with you to make sure things are going well. This type of arrangement is most common when the plan is for the child to return home fairly shortly - as soon as the family has taken steps to overcome the problems that led to the child's need for protection.
In other situations, the court may order the child into the care of the ministry. This means the child lives in a foster home until it is in their best interests to return to their family. Talk to the social worker if you would like to become the child's foster parent. You will have to go through an application and approval process.
If the court decides that it is not in the child's best interests to return to their family, you may apply for longer-term custody under the Family Relations Act. Your local family justice counselor can help you with the application, free of charge. Ask your local court registry how to contact a counselor (To find a registry, check the provincial blue pages of your phone book under Court Services or Ministry of Justice and Attorney General.)
A lawyer can also help you apply. If you can afford a lawyer, call the Lawyer Referral Service 604 687-3221 in the Lower Mainland, (toll-free 1-800-663-1919 from anywhere else in B.C.) and ask for the name of someone in your area who knows about child protection. You can see the lawyer for $10 for the first half hour, then decide if you want to hire them.
If you have very little money, legal aid may pay for a lawyer. Check the white pages of the phone book under Legal Aid-Legal Services Society, or the Lawyers section in the yellow pages for your nearest legal aid office. You can also get the number by calling the Victims Information Line toll-free at 1-800-563-0808. If you apply for legal aid, it will speed things up if you bring proof of your income, and any court documents you may have received.
You can get information about the law and available legal services from the Law Line at 604 601-6100. The People's Law School has some publications about child protection. You can reach them at 604 331-5400. In the Lower Mainland, the Law Students Legal Advice Program holds free legal clinics. Phone 604 822-5791 to find the nearest location. In Victoria, call the Law Centre at 250 388-4516 to find out about their drop-in clinic hours.
Who will take care of the child if no relative can?
If there is no relative who is appropriate or able to provide care, the ministry will place the child in an approved foster home.
Can I stay in touch with the child if they are in foster care?
Talk to the social worker. They can arrange access, if this is in the child's best interests. If the social worker thinks it better that you do not phone or visit the child, and you still want to maintain contact, ask the social worker's supervisor to review the situation or suggest that a mediator be brought in. If you are still denied access, you can apply to court. The social worker can tell you how this works, but you should also consult a lawyer.
As a relative, you can play an important role in helping to ensure that a child's best interests are respected. If, after reading this information, you have further questions, you can contact your local Ministry of Children and Family Development office. The number can be found in the blue pages of your local phone book.