Supervisory neglect and risk of harm. Evidence from the Canadian Child Welfare System

Authors: Ruiz-Casares M, Trocmé N, Fallon B.

Date: 2012


This study explores prevalence and characteristics associated with supervisory neglect and physical harm in children in the child welfare system in Canada.


The sample included all substantiated primary maltreatment investigations in the 2008 Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect excluding cases where exposure to intimate partner violence was the sole reason for investigation (n=3,380). Bivariate tests were used to assess differences across types of maltreatments and to compare supervisory neglect cases with and without physical harm on factors related to child injury and supervision.


Supervisory neglect was the primary concern in an estimated 12,793 cases of substantiated maltreatment across Canada in 2008. Compared to other types of maltreatment, cases of supervisory neglect involved more overcrowded housing conditions and children who were younger and less likely to have any functioning issue. Injuries were noted in only 2% of cases supervisory neglect and half of these injuries were not severe enough to require medical treatment. Other physical health conditions were noted in 2% of supervisory neglect cases. Physical harm was noted most often for toddlers (1-2 years old) and adolescents (12-15 years old). Household and caregiver characteristics were not associated with greater rates of physical harm. In contrast, 7% of children with any risk factor suffered physical harm as a result of supervisory neglect mainly related to substance abuse, self-harming behavior, and multiple incidents of running from care.


Child risk factors are often present in cases of supervisory neglect with physical harm. Nonetheless, 96% of all cases of supervisory neglect substantiated by Canadian child welfare authorities do not involve physical harm. Clearer guidelines are needed for the assessment of supervisory neglect. Alternative response systems may be more suitable for low-risk cases.

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