Child Welfare in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Child Welfare in Canada

Child welfare in Canada refers to a system of children's aid societies established by provincial and territorial governments, at times in partnership with private organizations, to provide services that supplement or substitute for parental care and supervision.


Each province now has a well-established system of child welfare services (see Family Law) to prevent or help remedy problems that may result in children being neglected, abused, exploited, or in trouble with the law (see Child Abuse; Juvenile Delinquency); to provide out-of-home care, (ie, foster care, group home care, residential care and adoption services) for children removed from their homes; and to provide a variety of support services for families who are experiencing difficulties caring for their children.

Modern child welfare services are concerned not only with the behaviour of children and parents, but also with a variety of social and environmental difficulties which jeopardize the well-being of all family members. In Canada and across the world, poverty is the major social issue which correlates with child welfare problems.

Historical Development

For much of human history, children were often seen as commodities to be bought, sold or even put to death. They were owned absolutely by their fathers.

The tendency for the state to intervene in the care of children is relatively recent. The "child-saving" era, which began during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, saw a variety of private philanthropic, charitable and religious organizations begin to offer help to abandoned, orphaned and neglected children. These organizations operated orphanages, training schools and poor houses in an attempt to ensure that all children were reared as disciplined, industrious and literate citizens.

In Upper and Lower Canada before Confederation, children were primarily the responsibility of the family. Any other assistance came from the church or from the local community. Provincial governments provided institutions like jails, reformatories and industrial schools, and support to orphanages run by churches and private organizations. They also established a system of indenture whereby a child could be assigned to an employer in exchange for room and board (and sometimes wages). At that time most people in Canada lived on farms and family survival relied heavily on the work of children.

Child labour as a social problem is associated with the rise of industrialism and capitalism. Canada was predominantly agricultural until well into the 20th century, meaning child labour did not become as serious a problem there as it did in Europe.

First Children's Aid Society

When poverty and destitution, increased by industrialization and urbanization, took their toll, little public health or relief was available (see Social Security). Growing numbers of homeless, destitute children in urban centres, greater juvenile crime, and changes in child-labour practices pressured governments to respond to the plight of children. At the same time (1870-1925) large numbers of children were brought from Britain to Canada to serve as agricultural labourers and domestic servants. It was in effect the first large system of foster placement, and it often did not serve the best interests of the child (see Immigrant Children).

As philanthropic movements to rescue children from undesirable circumstances grew, organizations became larger and the state began to regulate and finance a system of child-welfare services. The first Children's Aid Society was established in Toronto in 1891, and the first Child Protection Act was passed in Ontario in 1893. This Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to and Better Protection of Children made the abuse of children an indictable offence for the first time. It also promoted foster care, gave children's aid societies guardianship power, and established the office of the superintendent of neglected children.

The rapid expansion of services in most provinces over the next 20 years bureaucratized and professionalized the services, greatly influencing the subsequent development of child-welfare services. Changes in child welfare were also affected by changing attitudes toward the participation of children in the labour market, by the increasing support for the importance of formal education, and through a gradual recognition that children had a right to be free from a variety of harms.

Those responsible for both planning and delivering services in those days tended to focus on the family and its problems, while more broadly based societal problems such as unemployment, poverty and poor housing were less frequently identified as contributing factors.

Neglect and Abuse

Each province's legislation now defines those situations in which state intervention is required to protect a child— those who have been orphaned, deserted, physically, sexually or emotionally abused, or whose guardians cannot provide adequate care, or those children whose behaviour is such that they are considered a risk to themselves or to those around them. Under this legislation the responsibility for investigation and intervention lies with a provincial child-welfare officer or an organization mandated for that purpose, such as a children's aid society. Such offices must investigate any complaint of neglect or abuse and take whatever action is necessary to protect the child.

Suspected neglect or abuse of a child can be reported by anyone in the community. If the court removes a child from the home, the child welfare authority must arrange appropriate care (usually a temporary placement), and a social worker is assigned to work with the family so that the child can return to the home as soon as possible.

A major emphasis in modern child welfare policy is the importance of supporting and enhancing families so that whenever possible children can stay with their birth families. Children permanently removed from their homes may be placed in adoptive homes, or may remain in care until the age of majority. In most cases the natural parents are able to maintain some contact with their child.

Alternate Care

The child admitted into the care of a child-welfare authority is usually placed in a foster family recruited by the local child-welfare office or by the children's aid society and supervised by social-work staff. Foster parents are given considerable responsibility for the daily care of the child placed in their home. Due in part to the modern trend toward both parents working outside the home, there is difficulty in obtaining high-quality foster homes, particularly for older children and for those with special needs.

Some children are placed in state-financed group homes operated by the child-welfare authority or run privately, where group parents or child-care staff are employed. Some of these group homes simply provide an alternative home setting for a child, while others provide specialized treatment for children and youths with special needs, and for some of these children these group homes are a "placement of choice."

Children are also placed in larger residential centres, some of which provide general custodial care, while others provide services for children with special needs. The latter, frequently called treatment centres, are usually private and staffed by various professionals but are financed primarily by the state.


Adoption transfers custody and guardianship of a child from the natural parent(s) or the state to another person or persons and is regulated by the Child Welfare Act in each province. Traditionally, children available for adoption were primarily those of young unmarried mothers. Changing societal values have made it more acceptable for these young mothers to keep their children, so fewer healthy infants are now available for adoption.

For families wishing to adopt, older children as well as children with special needs and sibling groups have now become a possibility. Children may also be adopted by a new spouse when the custodial parent remarries. International adoption arose as a phenomenon in the 1990s.

In all provinces, prospective adoptive parents are assessed by the child-welfare authority (or a licensed private adoption agency) and if approved, and an appropriate child is available, the child will be placed initially in the home for a probationary period before the final adoption order is granted by the court.

In the past there was little contact between the adoptive child and the natural parents, but in recent years there has been much emphasis on "open adoption." Even when a child is placed in an adoptive home in infancy, the birth parents may remain involved. The efforts of older adoptees and their natural parents to locate each other have increased and some provinces have set up systems to facilitate such contacts.

Indigenous Peoples and Child Welfare

The situation of Indigenous children in Canada may be the greatest problem confronting the child welfare system. Although Indigenous people constitute 7.7 per cent Canada's overall population, the 2016 census by Statistics Canada shows that 52.2 per cent of all children in the care of the state are Indigenous.

Indigenous children’s overrepresentation in the child welfare system stems from a history of colonial programs and policies. From 1831 to 1996, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities to attend residential schools, where they were forbidden from practicing their cultures. After years living under devastating federal policies, including the Indian Act and residential schools, many Indigenous communities — particularly those living on-reserve — were rampant with poverty, high death rates and socio-economic barriers by the 1960s. Again, the government removed children from their homes rather than provide community resources and supports. This has become known as the Sixties Scoop. This experience left many adoptees with a lost sense of cultural identity. The physical and emotional separation from their birth families continues to affect adult adoptees and Indigenous communities to this day. (See Economic Conditions of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and  Social Conditions of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

Modern child welfare services are delivered in different ways, depending on the Indigenous community. For example, on-reserve services are often funded by the federal government, whereas most others are funded by the provincial or territorial governments. In 2020, a new Indigenous child welfare law was passed, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families (Bill C-92). This law upholds Indigenous peoples’ right to exercise control over family and child services.

Contemporary Issues

Enormous changes have occurred within the child welfare field in Canada over the past 30 years. Increased understanding of the dynamics of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and of child neglect have led to changes not only in the nature and focus of services available to children and families, but also in legislation which now requires professionals and members of the public to report suspected cases of child abuse. Social work education is now considered a requirement for those who do child welfare work in most jurisdictions.

Although there will always be some children and families who require the services of child protection agencies, there is general acceptance of the idea that a society that provides opportunities for meaningful employment, adequate housing, universally available education and health care, and good child care for working parents will experience fewer child welfare problems.

See Family Allowance; Poverty; Social Security; Welfare State.

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