CALGARY — An Alberta law that fines or imprisons people who don’t report cases of child abuse or neglect has never been used, something advocates say is a “lost opportunity.”
Under the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act, someone with ”reasonable or probable grounds to believe that a child is in need of intervention” must report it. Anyone who fails to do so, can be fined up to $2,000 or jailed for up to six months.
That part of the act was added in 2003, but not one charge has been laid.
Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, who brought to light sex crimes by his former junior hockey coach Graham James, said there are usually people who know what is happening and don’t report it. If the law is there, he said it should be used.
“I think it is a lost opportunity,” said Kennedy, now an advocate for child-abuse survivors.
“The reality is other people a lot of times have gut feelings that something’s not right but don’t do anything about it. Somehow we need to enforce an act or empower people with the confidence and knowledge to make them act.”
Kennedy said it’s a myth that children are usually abused by complete strangers. The legislation is another weapon in the battle against child abuse, he said.
“If I look at my situation, the rumours about Graham James were all over the place. I guess if this was an act that was enforced, I probably would never have met Graham James,” Kennedy said.
“I think that this is something that we have to look at.”
Alberta Children’s Services Minister Danielle Larivee said one of the law’s biggest challenges is there must be sufficient evidence for a conviction.
“It’s pretty difficult to prove that someone knew about abuse and did nothing,” she told The Canadian Press. “I honestly don’t ever want to see those kind of charges laid, I mean, to know that somebody intentionally knew a child was at risk and didn’t report it.”
But she said the law will remain on the books just in case while the government focuses on public education and prevention.
“We need to make sure that there is a clear understanding that it is not only a moral obligation but a legal obligation,” Larivee said. “So we’re going to leave it on the books on the horrible chance that someone would actually make that decision on their own not to report.”
The president of the Alberta College of Social Workers said keeping the law in place is crucial.
“It’s a great piece of legislation,” said Richard Gregory. “I think the downside of that piece of legislation is that people don’t know about it. It’s an absolute necessity.”
A criminologist and lecturer at Mount Royal University’s criminal justice program isn’t surprised the legislation has not been used. Ritesh Narayan said the law’s intention is fine but prosecuting under it is problematic.
“If you really start enforcing it then you are opening the floodgates because then you are going to have everyone terrified because they don’t want to be prosecuted,” he said.
“As a result they’ll be calling in when they see a parent smoking a cigarette in a car with a kid present because that definitely could be construed as child abuse.”
Using the law could also have a chilling effect if someone knew about possible abuse for a period of time and then went to police to report it, Narayan said.
“If they were to disclose I’ve seen this for the last few weeks or few months, you’re basically incriminating yourself.”
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Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press