Home Safe

by Céline Poissant

New hope for victims of domestic child abuse


A young boy returns from school, report card in hand, and his parents ignore him. Out of the blue, a girl is pulled aside and beaten by her stepmother. A pre-teen dreads going to bed at night because her father sexually abuses her. A youngster repeatedly suffers psychological violence at home.

These are just some of the many faces of domestic child abuse Professor Nico Trocmé and his team of 12 researchers examined in the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect—2003 (CIS), the second report from an ongoing study funded by Health Canada. Released in 2005, this latest CIS covers data from 1998 to 2003.

“As children, most of us never questioned our parents’ presence as a source of unconditional love and support,” explains Trocmé, the Philip Fisher Chair in Social Work and Director of McGill’s Centre for Research on Children and Families (CRCF), “but there are children whose sense of equilibrium and security is constantly threatened for all kinds of reasons.” A lack of data prompted him to conduct the epidemiological studies that have become the gold standard for Canadian child welfare research.

Trocmé decided to focus his studies on social services after several summers spent counselling troubled children at special camps. Armed with a master’s degree, he worked for five years as a social worker in child welfare and mental health. He eventually found himself gravitating toward administration and analysis, frequently serving on committees. “I always admired my colleagues’ ability to intervene quickly to protect children and to get involved with families,” he says of his gradual shift from intervention to research. “But, for me, this process was much longer and did not come as easily.” He completed a doctorate in social work at the University of Toronto, deciding he could best help abused children through research.

Social work professor Nico Trocmé examines the many faces of domestic child abuse to help decision-makers create safeguards for kids.
Social work professor Nico Trocmé examines the many faces of domestic child abuse to help decision-makers create safeguards for kids.

The product of collaboration with over 700 child welfare service providers and policy-makers, the CIS paints a portrait of children and parents who have come into contact with youth protection services, examining 22 forms of maltreatment in five categories: exposure to domestic violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional maltreatment. The study focused on the impact on children’s mental and physical health, their failure to thrive, learning disabilities and behavioural problems.

In the five years between the current CIS and its predecessor, the rate of corroborated mistreatment in Canada, excluding Quebec, had increased from 9.64 to 21.71 cases per 1,000 children. Trocmé is careful to explain the increase doesn’t necessarily mean more children are being abused. Instead, the numbers might reflect factors such as better reporting and greater awareness of psychological violence. The amount of reported emotional maltreatment, for example, is up 276 per cent. The team is now making public further analysis of the major findings from CIS, and plans to begin gathering new data in 2008.

“Our role is to describe this population and to use the data we collect to inform politicians, administrators and child-care workers,” he explains. “Our aim is to identify important missing data as well as to help decision-makers and strategists interpret it. As experts, we help them to develop policies and laws and to make legislative changes. We succeed at this because we take the time to establish personal contacts with decision-makers.”