“In all actions concerning children, … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child)

University of Manitoba researchers are leaders on children’s rights issues such as spanking, childhood disability. and dignity promotion for those living with FASD.

Photo courtesy of Ruth Bonneville, Winnipeg Free Press

The Centre for Human Rights Research is building on that expertise by supporting new projects related to the rights of children and adolescents.

Obligation to report adolescent sexual abuse

Former CHRR director Prof. Karen Busby, as principal investigator, together with law Dean Lorna Turnbull, nursing professors Marie Edwards and Roberta Woodgate and Deputy Children’s Advocate Corey La Berge, received a $25,000 University Collaborative Research Grant in early 2016 for a project on the obligations of health-care and social-service providers to report possible sexual abuse of adolescents.

Media reported in 2015 the case of a child who had two abortions when she was 12 years old after she was sexually assaulted by her step-father. On his instructions, she advised her health-care providers that her boyfriend was her sexual partner. This case put the spotlight on the scope of the obligation of health-care institutions and individual health-care and social-service providers to report sexual abuse to child protection authorities, their mis/understanding of these obligations, and their concerns about the harmful effects of reporting. It may also have revealed disconnections between child protection law and good health-care practices by raising questions about whether child protection legislation adequately accounts for adolescents’ rights to sexual and decisional autonomy, privacy, security and access to sexual health care.

This research project, which involves researchers from Nursing and Law and the Deputy Children’s Advocate, will explore those challenges. There has been little research in Canada on laws mandating reports of child abuse and limited research from any jurisdiction with a specific focus on reporting adolescent sexual abuse or barriers to such reports. We will ask how laws designed to protect children from violence can also respect children’s other rights and how such laws should be informed by both an understanding of the harmful effects of being unwittingly caught up in child protection or criminal proceedings and respect for the expertise of health-care and social-service providers, especially their practices of harm reduction. As well, this analysis will be predicated on involving children in the research and policy development enterprise.

A new paradigm for understanding the obligations of health-care and social-service providers to report sexual abuse may emerge. This paradigm could inform recommendations for possible changes to laws and best practice guidelines.

The research team held consultation workshops with health and social service providers and youth in late 2016 to solicit feedback on proposed research questions and study design.

December 2017 update: We have reviewed the literature on barriers to mandatory reporting identified in health-care and other contexts. We have also considered various questions prospective reporters might have about mandatory reporting laws in all Canadian provinces and territories, drawing out ambiguities and other tensions. We have identified areas where there is a need for more in-depth legal and critical analyses in order to improve mandatory reporting, especially in the case of adolescent sexual abuse.