Malicious Referrals, Custody Disputes and Police Involvement in the Canadian Child Welfare System: Data Tables from the 2008 Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect

Introduction

This report presents information about malicious referrals to child welfare agencies in Canada using data from the 2008 Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS‑2008). The CIS‑2008 is the third national study to examine the incidence of reported child abuse and neglect in Canada (Trocmé et al., 2010b). The primary objective of the CIS‑2008 was to provide reliable estimates of the scope and characteristics of child abuse and neglect investigated by child welfare organizations in Canada in 2008 (Trocmé et al., 2010a).

The published literature examining the incidence and prevalence of false allegations in child welfare investigations is limited. Much of the research was conducted in the 1990’s and focuses primarily on false allegations of sexual abuse in the context of custody/access disputes (Corwin, Berliner, Goodman, & Goodwin, 1987; Coulborn, 1991; Elterman & Ehrenberg, 1991; Faller & DeVoe, 1995; Green, 1991; Theoennes & Tjaden, 1990; Wakefield & Underwager, 1990). In the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect 1998 (CIS‑1998), four percent of the investigations were judged to have been triggered by intentionally false allegations of child abuse or neglect (Trocmé & Bala, 2005). Approximately 2% of reports from custodial parents were classified as intentionally false (Trocmé & Bala, 2005). Twenty-five percent of reports from anonymous sources and 15% of reports from noncustodial parents were classified as intentionally false reports (Trocmé & Bala, 2005).

Methodology

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. These child protection investigations involved children age zero to 15 years old. There is provincial/territorial variation in the ages served by child welfare authorities. The lowest common age range for child welfare services across Canada is zero to 15 years old, and therefore we use this range when presenting results. Every table in this analysis, with the exception of Table 7 (Youth Criminal Justice Act involvement)[1], includes investigations involving children age zero to 15. The data collected for the CIS‑2008 were weighted in order to derive national annual incidence estimates, first by applying a composite regionalization weight and then by applying an annualization weight.

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 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 abuse issue). Certain information is unavailable for risk-only investigations, and therefore the present analysis only includes risk-only investigations in Table 5 (child custody dispute) and Table 7 (Youth Criminal Justice Act involvement). Information about malicious referrals was not collected for risk-only investigations.

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). A detailed presentation of the study methodology and variable definitions is available at http://cwrp.ca/sites/default/files/publications/en/CIS_2008_Methods_March_2013.pdf. Please see Table 1 for a description of the specific variables used in this analysis.

Table 1 - Variable Definitions
Variable Definition
Investigation Type Maltreatment‑related investigations include both maltreatment investigations (i.e., an incident of maltreatment was alleged) and risk‑only investigations (i.e., no specific incident of maltreatment was alleged but the concern is the risk of future maltreatment).
Maltreatment Category Workers could identify up to three forms of investigated maltreatment from a list of 32 codes. These 32 codes were collapsed into five major maltreatment types: physical abuse (i.e., shake, push, grab or throw; hit with hand; punch, kick or bite; hit with object; choking, poisoning, stabbing; other physical abuse), sexual abuse (i.e., penetration; attempted penetration; oral sex; fondling; sex talk or images; voyeurism; exhibitionism; exploitation; other sexual abuse), neglect (i.e., failure to supervise, physical harm; failure to supervise, sexual harm; permitting criminal behaviour; physical neglect; medical neglect including dental; failure to provide psychiatric treatment; abandonment; educational neglect), emotional maltreatment (i.e., terrorizing or threat of violence; verbal abuse or belittling; isolation/confinement; inadequate nurturing or affection; exploiting or corrupting behaviour), and exposure to intimate partner violence (i.e., direct witness to physical violence; indirect exposure to physical violence; exposure to emotional violence; exposure to non‑partner physical violence).
Substantiation For each form of maltreatment, workers indicated the substantiation level for the investigation: unfounded (balance of evidence implied that the maltreatment did not occur); suspected (that there was not enough evidence to confirm that maltreatment had occurred, but maltreatment could not be ruled out); or substantiated (balance of evidence implied that the maltreatment occurred).
Malicious Report Workers identified if the case was intentionally reported while knowing the allegation was unfounded. This could apply to conflictual relationships (e.g., custody dispute between parents, disagreements between relatives, disputes between neighbours).
Source of Referral Workers were asked to identify all sources of referral that were applicable for each case. Each separate and independent contact with the child welfare agency was filled in. Therefore, more than one answer would be filled if there was more than one referral source during the investigation. Response options included: custodial parent, non‑custodial parent, child (subject of referral), relative, neighbour/friend, social assistance worker, crisis service/shelter, community/recreation centre, hospital, community health nurse, community physician, community mental health professional, school, other child welfare service, day care centre, police, community agency, anonymous, other. In Quebec, information on certain referral source categories was unavailable due to differences in data collection procedures. Therefore, the tables in this report that present information on referral source use the following categories: custodial/non‑custodial parent, child (subject of referral), relative, neighbour/friend, professional referral, anonymous, other.
Child Custody Dispute Workers specified if there was an ongoing child custody/access dispute at the time of the investigation. The court application could have been made or could be pending.
Police Involvement in Child Maltreatment Investigation Workers indicated the level of police involvement for the present child maltreatment investigation (none, investigation only, charges being considered, charges laid).
Police Involvement in Domestic Violence Investigations Workers indicated the level of police involvement specific to a domestic violence investigation (none, investigation only, charged being considered, charges laid, unknown and N/A).
Youth Criminal Justice Act Involvement Workers were asked to fill out if the investigated child had been charged, incarcerated or involved with alternative measures with the Youth Justice System.

Results

There were an estimated 235,842 child maltreatment-related investigations conducted in Canada in 2008 (174,411 child maltreatment investigations and 61,431 risk-only investigations). Information about malicious referrals was collected in an estimated 170,710 child maltreatment investigations. As previously mentioned, information about malicious referrals was not collected for risk-only investigations. As shown in Table 2, of the 170,710 child maltreatment investigations, only 9,369 investigations (6%) were the result of a malicious referral.

Table 2 - Substantiation and malicious reports of maltreatment in child maltreatment investigations in Canada in 2008[a]
Substantiation and Malicious Reports #[b] %
Substantiated maltreatment 85,440 50
Suspected maltreatment 17,918 10
Unfounded maltreatment, non‑malicious report 46,429 27
Unfounded maltreatment, malicious report 9,369 6
Unfounded maltreatment, malicious intent unknown 11,554 7
Subtotal: unfounded maltreatment 67,352 40
Total 170,710 100

[a] Based on a sample of 11,404 child maltreatment investigations with information about malicious referrals. Percentages are column percentages.

[b] Number of investigations.

Table 3 outlines malicious reports of maltreatment in child maltreatment investigations by primary category of investigated maltreatment. Eleven percent (n=1,683) of emotional maltreatment investigations were the result of a malicious referral, compared to 7% (n=4,050) of neglect investigations, 6% of both physical abuse and sexual abuse investigations (n=2,434 and n=549 respectively), and only 2% of exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) investigations (n=653).

Table 3 - Substantiation and malicious reports of maltreatment in child maltreatment investigations by primary category of investigated maltreatment in Canada in 2008[c]
  Primary Maltreatment Category
Physical Abuse Sexual Abuse Neglect Emotional Maltreatment Exposure to IPV Total
#[d] % #[d] % #[d] % #[d] % #[d] % #[d] %
Substantiated maltreatment 17,212 40 2,607 27 28,939 47 7,423 48 29,259 72 85,440 50
Suspected maltreatment 3,593 8 1,452 15 5,529 9 2,973 19 4,371 11 17,918 10
Unfounded maltreatment, non-malicious report 17,599 40 3,563 38 16,757 27 2,533 16 5,977 15 46,429 27
Unfounded maltreatment, malicious report 2,434 6 549 6 4,050 7 1,683 11 653 2 9,369 5
Unfounded maltreatment, malicious intent unknown 2,669 6 1,313 14 6,179 10 792 5 601 1 11,554 7
Total 43,507 100 9,484 100 61,454 100 15,404 100 40,861 100 170,710 100

[c] Based on a sample of 11,404 child maltreatment investigations with information about malicious referrals. Percentages are column percentages, and may not add to 100% because of rounding.

[d] Number of investigations.

Malicious reports of maltreatment are documented by source of referral for child maltreatment investigations in Table 4. Twentythree percent of child maltreatment investigations in which the referral source remained anonymous were considered malicious referrals (n=2,119). Approximately 12% of child maltreatment investigations referred to a child protection agency by a custodial or non-custodial parent were considered malicious referrals (n=2,129). In 16% of referrals by a neighbour or friend (n=2,184) and 10% of referrals by a relative (n=1,216), the referral was considered malicious. Among the other referral source categories, malicious referrals were less likely to occur.

Table 4 - Substantiation and malicious reports of maltreatment in child maltreatment investigations by source of referral in Canada in 2008[e]
  Source of Referral
Custodial/ Non-custodial Parent[g] Child (Subject of Referral) Relative Neighbour/
Friend
Professional Referral Anonymous Other Total
#[f] % #[f] % #[f] % #[f] % #[f] % #[f] % #[f] % #[f] %
Substantiated maltreatment 7,682 44 1,074 41 6,123 50 4,324 33 64,869 55 2,019 22 3,148 57 85,440 50
Suspected maltreatment 1,972 11 407 15 1,438 12 1,287 10 11,868 10 948 10 884 16 17,918 10
Unfounded maltreatment, non‑malicious report 3,479 20 817 31 2,284 19 3,202 24 35,463 30 1,444 16 887 16 46,429 27
Unfounded maltreatment, malicious report 2,129 12 [h] [h] 1,216 10 2,184 16 1,634 1 2,119 23 294 5 9,369 5
Unfounded maltreatment, malicious intent unknown 2,182 13 244 9 1,253 10 2,286 17 3,205 3 2,550 28 321 6 11,554 7
Total 17,444 100 2,638 100 12,314 100 13,283 100 117,039 100 9,080 100 5,534 100 170,710 100

[e] Based on a sample of 11,404 child maltreatment investigations with information about malicious referrals. Rows are not additive because an investigation could have had more than one referral source. Percentages are column percentages, and may not add to 100% because of rounding.

[f] Number of investigations.

[g] Custodial and non‑custodial parent categories could not be separated as this information was unavailable in Quebec.

[h] Estimates of less than 100 investigations are not shown, but are included in the total.

Table 5 displays the number of child maltreatment-related investigations (i.e., maltreatment and risk-only investigations) that noted a child custody/access dispute. Overall, 13% of maltreatment-related investigations noted a child custody/access dispute. There was little difference between maltreatment and risk-only investigations in terms of child custody/access disputes. Of the estimated 174,370 child maltreatment investigations in which information was obtained about child custody disputes, the worker noted there was a dispute in 21,686 investigations (12%). Of the estimated 61,387 risk-only investigations in which information was obtained about child custody disputes, the worker noted there was a dispute in 7,532 investigations (12%).

Table 5 - Child maltreatment‑related investigations involving families who are also involved in child custody disputes in Canada in 2008[i]
Child Custody Dispute Type of Investigation
Maltreatment Risk Total
#[j] % #[j] % #[j] %
No 149,077 86 52,372 85 201,449 85
Yes 21,686 12 7,532 12 29,218 13
Unknown 3,607 2 1,483 2 5,090 2
Total 174,370 100 61,387 100 235,757 100

[i] Based on a sample of 15,969 child maltreatment–related investigations (i.e., maltreatment and risk‑only) with information about child custody disputes. Percentages are column percentages, and may not add to 100% because of rounding.

[j] Number of investigations.

Table 6 outlines malicious reports of maltreatment in child maltreatment investigations among cases involving a child custody/access dispute. A malicious referral was made in 10% (n=2,160) of investigations involving a child custody/access dispute. Of these 2,160 child maltreatment investigations involving a child custody/access dispute and a malicious referral, 1,422 or 65% of these investigations were referred by a custodial or non-custodial parent (cannot distinguish between custodial and non-custodial parents in the national sample).

Table 6 - Substantiation and malicious reports of maltreatment in child maltreatment investigations by cases involving a child custody dispute in Canada in 2008[k]
  Child Custody Dispute
No Yes Unknown Total
#[l] % #[l] % #[l] % #[l] %
Substantiated maltreatment 73,552 50 10,293 49 1,574 44 85,419 50
Suspected maltreatment 15,051 10 2,387 11 476 13 17,914 10
Unfounded maltreatment, non‑malicious report 41,794 29 3,748 18 889 25 46,431 27
Unfounded maltreatment, malicious report 7,036 5 2,160 10 158 4 9,354 5
Unfounded maltreatment, malicious intent unknown 8,458 6 2,621 12 475 13 11,554 7
Total 145,891 100 21,209 100 3,572 100 170,672 100

[k] Based on a sample of 11,400 child maltreatment investigations with information about malicious referrals and child custody disputes. Percentages are column percentages, and may not add to 100% because of rounding.

[l] Number of investigations.

Table 7 shows Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) involvement noted in child maltreatment-related investigations (i.e., maltreatment and risk-only investigations) involving youth age 12 to 15 years old. Overall, 6% of all maltreatment-related investigations for 12 to 15 year old youth confirmed YCJA involvement. Risk investigations were almost equally as likely to confirm YCJA involvement (7%, or n=1,013) when compared to maltreatment investigations (6%, or n=2,594).

Table 7 - Youth Criminal Justice Act involvement in investigations involving 12 to 15 year old children in Canada in 2008[m]l
YCJA Involvement Type of Investigation
Maltreatment Risk Total
#[n] % #[n] % #[n] %
No 38,645 87 11,939 83 50,584 86
Suspected 734 2 218 2 952 2
Confirmed 2,594 6 1,013 7 3,607 6
Unknown 2,209 5 1,288 9 3,497 6
Total 44,182 100 14,458 100 58,640 100

[m] Based on a sample of 3,908 child maltreatment‑related investigations involving 12 to 15 year olds with information; about Youth Criminal Justice Act involvement. Percentages are column percentages, and may not add to 100% because of rounding.

[n] Number of investigations.

Table 8 examines the level of police involvement in child maltreatment investigations and the presence of child custody/access disputes. Most maltreatment investigations did not have any police involvement (86% overall). There was little difference in police involvement between investigations that did and did not note a child custody/access dispute.

Table 8 - Police involvement in child maltreatment investigation by child custody dispute in Canada in 2008[o]
Police Involvement Child Custody Dispute
No Yes Unknown Total
#[q] % #[q] % #[q] % #[q] %
None 129,871 87 17,789 82 2,986 83 150,646 86
Police investigation only 12,995 9 3,059 14 415 12 16,505 9
Police charges considered 2,311 2 339 2 115 3 2,765 2
Police charges laid 3,900 3 499 2 [p] [p] 4,454 3
Total 149,077 100 21,686 100 3,607 100 174,370 100

[o] Based on a sample of 11,803 child maltreatment investigations with information about child custody disputes. Percentages are column percentages, and may not add to 100% because of rounding.

[p] Estimates of less than 100 investigations are not shown, but are included in the total.

[q] Number of investigations.

Table 9 examines police involvement among investigations in which exposure to IPV was listed as a primary, secondary, or tertiary concern (excluding investigations involving exposure to non-partner physical violence). This refers to police involvement in an adult domestic violence investigation. Charges were laid in 36% and considered in 4% of the 50,304 investigations. There was a police investigation only in an additional 25% of these investigations. Approximately one-third of these investigations did not have any police involvement (34%, or n=16,950).

Table 9 - Police involvement in adult domestic violence investigation where exposure to intimate partner violence was a primary, secondary, or tertiary form of investigated maltreatment in Canada in 2008[r]
Police Involvement #[s] %
None 16,950 34
Investigation only 12,629 25
Charges being considered 2,094 4
Charges laid 18,010 36
Unknown 621 1
Total 50,304 100

[r] Based on a sample of 3,372 child maltreatment investigations where exposure to intimate partner violence was a primary, secondary, or tertiary form of investigated maltreatment. Percentages are column percentages. Analysis does not include investigations for exposure to non‑partner physical violence.

[s] Number of investigations.

Similarly, Table 10 examines police involvement among investigations in which exposure to IPV was listed as a primary, secondary, or tertiary concern (excluding investigations involving exposure to non-partner physical violence). Again, this refers to police involvement in an adult domestic violence investigation. Custody/access disputes are examined within these investigations.

Table 10 - Police involvement in adult domestic violence investigation by child custody dispute in Canada in 2008[t]
Police Involvement Child Custody Dispute
Non Yes Unknown Total
#[u] % #[u] % #[u] % #[u] %
Police investigation only 10,774 26 1,744 24 111 13 12,629 25
Police charges considered 1,583 4 405 5 106 13 2,094 4
Police charges laid 15,607 37 2,049 28 355 42 18,011 36
Unknown 393 1 191 3 [v] [v] 622 1
Total 42,042 100 7,407 100 846 100 50,295 100

[t] Based on a sample of 3,371 child maltreatment investigations where exposure to intimate partner violence was a primary, secondary, or tertiary form of investigated maltreatment with information about child custody disputes. Percentages are column percentages, and may not add to 100% because of rounding. Analysis does not include investigations for exposure to non‑partner physical violence.

[u] Number of investigations.

[v] Estimates of less than 100 investigations are not shown, but are included in the total.

Police charges were laid in 37% of investigations (n = 15,607) with no child custody/access dispute noted, and in 28% of investigations (n = 2,049) with a custody/access dispute noted.

Table 11 displays police involvement in child maltreatment investigations, specifically examining investigations in which physical abuse was the only investigated and substantiated form of maltreatment, and the perpetrator was a caregiver. In 71% of these investigations (n = 5,591), there was no police involvement. Eighteen percent of these investigations noted a police investigation only, 4% noted that charges were being considered, and 7% noted that charges were laid.

Table 11 - Police involvement in maltreatment investigation where physical abuse was the only investigated and substantiated form of maltreatment and the perpetrator was a caregiver in Canada in 2008[w]
Police Involvement #[x] %
None 5,591 71%
Investigation only 1,426 18%
Charges being considered 320 4%
Charges laid 567 7%
Total 7,903 100

[w] Based on a sample of 531 child maltreatment investigations where physical abuse was the only investigated and substantiated form of maltreatment and the perpetrator was a caregiver. Percentages are column percentages.

[x] Number of investigations.

Limitations

The CIS collects information directly from child welfare workers at the point when they complete 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 study is based on the assessments provided by the investigating child welfare workers and could not be independently verified. 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. Three limitations to the estimation method used to derive annual estimates should also be noted. The agency size correction uses child population as a proxy for agency size; this does not account for variations in per capita investigation rates across agencies in the same strata. The annualization weight corrects for seasonal fluctuation in the volume of investigations, but it does not correct for seasonal variations in types of investigations conducted. Finally, the annualization weight includes cases that were investigated more than once in the year as a result of the case being re-opened following a first investigation completed earlier in the same year. Accordingly, the weighted annual estimates represent the child maltreatment-related investigations, rather than investigated children.

References

Corwin, D., Berliner, L., Goodman, G., & Goodwin, J. (1987).
Child Sexual Abuse and Custody Disputes No Easy Answers. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2(1), 91–105.
Coulborn, K. (1991).
Possible explanations for child sexual abuse allegations in divorce. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, (1), 86–91.
Elterman, M., & Ehrenberg. M. (1991).
Sexual abuse allegations in child custody disputes. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 14, 269–266.
Faller, K., & DeVoe, E. (1995).
Allegations of Sexual Abuse in Divorce. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 4(4), 1–25.
Green, A. (1991).
Factors contributing to false allegations of child sexual abuse in custody disputes. Child & Youth Services, 15(2), 177–189.
Theoennes, N., & Tjaden, P. (1990).
The extent, nature, and validity of sexual abuse allegations in custody/visitation disputes. Child Abuse and Neglect, 14, 151–163.
Trocme, N., & Bala, N. (2005).
False allegations of abuse and neglect when parents separate. Child Abuse and Neglect, 29, 1333–1345.
Trocme, N., Fallon, B., MacLaurin, B., Sinha, V., Black, T., Fast, E., et al. (2010a).
Chapter 1: Introduction. In PHAC (Eds.), Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse, 2008: Major findings. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada.
Trocme, N., Fallon, B., MacLaurin, B., Sinha, V., Black, T., Fast, E., et al. (2010b).
Chapter 2: Methodology. In PHAC (Eds.), Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse, 2008: Major findings. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada.
Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1990).
Personality characteristics of parents making false accusations of sexual abuse in custody disputes. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 2(3), 121–136.

[1] Youth Criminal Justice Act is applicable to youth age 12 to 17 in Canada. Because the CIS‑2008 does not have nation-wide information about young people age 16 and older, only young people age 12 to 15 are examined in Table 7.

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