13 Child Protection in a Rural Setting

Cathy Rocke

Acknowledgment to Ashley Pipko-Huzil for her work on the literature reviews for this chapter.

This chapter will review the unique aspects of providing mandated child protection services in a Canadian rural setting.  First, the development and current state of child welfare in Canada will be presented with specific reference to child welfare services in rural Canada. Secondly, a review of rural social work practice models and the characteristics of effective rural social workers will be explored. Finally, the policy, practice and ethical considerations of child protection within a Canadian rural setting will be presented, drawing on the author’s experiences working in a rural community.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter you will have had the opportunity to:

  • Describe the theories of rural social work practice.
  • Describe the history of child welfare services in Canada.
  • Explain the principles of effective child protection practice and how these principles have unique aspects in a rural setting.
  • Discuss how your own values may help or hinder your ability as a child protection worker in a rural setting.

Child Welfare in Canada

Intervention by the state into the family is relatively recent in Western countries. During Roman times, laws were based on the concept of patria potestas, which viewed children as the property of their fathers allowing them complete control over their children’s lives. This control included the right to sell his children into slavery or even put them to death. With the spread of Christianity, the powers of the father became more circumscribed but still allowed fathers the right of “reasonable chastisement” of their children (Bala, 2004, p. 2). With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century, the condition of children began to gain the attention of social reformers that resulted in the beginning of the child welfare system.

The development of the current child welfare system originated in urban centers. Social reformers including J.J. Keslo—founder of the first Children’s Aid Society in Toronto—were part of the Child Saving and Child Rescue movements (MacLaurin & McCormak, 2007). The increasing numbers of neglected and abandoned children in urban settings were the focus of these movements. Members were motivated by their Christian beliefs to save these neglected and abandoned children from their current circumstances to be raised in good Christian homes (Cameron et al., 2007). Ontario became the first province in Canada in 1893 to enact legislation allowing the state to intervene in families and remove children from their caregivers, if the children were deemed to be neglected or abandoned (Bala, 2004). In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the first child welfare legislation was enacted 1898 and 1909 respectively (Dornstauer & Macknack, 2009; Hurl, 1984).

Despite the enactment of child welfare legislation in most provinces at this time, delivery was urban-focused, and delivery of services to rural areas was left to either the family and/or churches in the area to address (Dornstauder & Macknack, 2009). Child neglect, youth delinquency, unwed mothers and the most severe cases of physical abuse remained the focus of any child welfare interventions for the next 50 years (Bala, 2004; Oliver, 2017).

With the medical discovery of the “battered child syndrome” in the 1960s by radiologist Dr. Kempe, public awareness of child physical abuse increased dramatically (Cameron et al., 2007).  In the 1970s and 1980s child sexual abuse came to public attention and, along with the adoption of mandatory reporting laws, dramatically increased the numbers of families that were reported to child welfare authorities (Bala, 2004). Over this time period, the stigma against unwed mothers receded and child welfare authorities’ involvement was restricted to underage mothers with limited familial support. The responsibility for young offenders also shifted to the youth criminal justice system after several legislative changes (Bala, 2004). The focus on child abuse in child welfare agencies resulted in child protection workers gaining skills in forensic techniques similar to those used by law enforcement. Coupled with the use of the adversarial court system to determine the fate of abused and neglected children, this shift undermined the ability for many social workers to develop helping relationships with their clients (Oliver, 2017).

The  location of most child welfare agencies has been in large urban settings since their inception. Historically, child protection services in rural areas were often left to volunteer community groups or churches. Rural children that came to the attention of authorities would be placed in urban institutions or foster homes upon removal from their familial homes (Dornstauder & Macknack, 2009). The history of child welfare services in Indigenous communities is distinct from the above history, and is outside the scope of this chapter. The genocidal Residential School system which systematically removed Indigenous children from their families and communities (Hamilton & Sinclair, 1991) and the 60s Scoop that initiated the forced removal and adoption of Indigenous children into non-Indigenous homes across North America and Europe have resulted in the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in state care today (Mandell et al., 2007).

The current child welfare system is predicated on a threshold model – that is, families have to meet a specific threshold to come to the attention of child protection workers. As a result, most child welfare systems provide reactionary services rather than preventative supports to help families struggling with parenting. Over the years, there have been several critiques of the threshold model, especially since the adoption of mandatory reporting requirements in most jurisdictions (Lonne et al., 2016). Many of the families that come to the attention of the system are marginalized within society (e.g., Indigenous, people of colour and families living in poverty) and would benefit from tangible resources. The current structure and funding models of child welfare systems do not adequately support the needs of families living in poverty. The focus on child protection by the system results in a focus on individual pathology instead of the systemic issues that impact families. Often the primary response to confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect is to remove the children from the home, which has resulted in dramatic overrepresentation of children from marginalized communities in care (Cameron et al., 2007).

Unique Aspects of Rural Social Work Practice

Rural communities have been defined in multiple ways, but “ultimately, rural communities are communities of people” that can “be locational, geographical, or associational” (Daley, 2021, p. 8). World views and values often set rural communities apart from urban settings. Riebschleger and Pierce (2018) suggest that rural people belong to a diverse group who can experience social and historical stigma, and they emphasize the importance of personal relationships in rural communities. Daley (2021) indicates that this element is often demonstrated in the close-knit communities that value family connections which often become individuals’ primary support. Informal helping networks are also common, such as reliance on neighbors or religious institutions (Riebschleger, 2007; Riebschleger & Pierce, 2018). Churches are gathering places for families and in some rural communities are the only viable option to obtain assistance (Lewis et al., 2013). In a study conducted by Zellmer and Anderson-Meger (2011), rural residents from two Midwestern states reported that they were less likely to trust a professional social worker over their church, which impacted their use of services and relationships with social workers.

Ginsberg (2011) identifies higher levels of depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse in rural settings. In a Canadian context, rural rates of police-reported violence against children and youth was nearly twice as high compared to urban settings. Women residing in rural areas experienced higher rates (789/100,000) of interpersonal violence than urban women (447/100,000) in 2018, with rural women in Saskatchewan and Manitoba with the highest rates in comparison with other provinces (Burczycka, 2018). A survey of rural physicians found that alcohol abuse was a major issue facing patients in rural British Columbia and that 76.4% of the respondents reported difficulty referring these patients for treatment, due to limited services (Slaunwhite & Mcdonald, 2015).

In a study of rural homelessness in Alberta, Schiff and Turner (2016) found that youth, victims of domestic violence, newcomers and Indigenous peoples were noted as sub-populations of rural homelessness. From an international perspective, Pugh and Cheers (2010) discuss the impact of changing local, regional and international economies on rural communities. The authors suggest that it is important for social workers to understand the consequences of higher unemployment rates and depopulation in rural areas and how these factors shape the lives of their clients. Riebschelger and Pierce (2018) add that child welfare workers should have an understanding of the historical context of rural communities they reside in, many of which were founded on agriculture and extraction economies. The decline of these industries can affect the overall sense of community.

There has been debate over the years about what type of social work practice works best within rural settings. Initially, it was argued that community development approaches were most appropriate based on the lack of resources available in rural areas. Currently, it is generally agreed that a generalist approach works best, as it allows social workers to use “multiple methods to address individual, family, group, organizational, and community problems” (Daley, 2021, p. 213). Generalist social workers are defined as practitioners “whose knowledge and skills encompass a broad spectrum and who assesses  problems and their solutions comprehensively” (Barker, 2014, p. 174). Rural communities often have limited specialized resources compared to more urban settings; rural social workers need to adopt a generalist practice approach that includes providing a variety of supports, whether it be basic life skills, counselling for mental health concerns, or advocacy for specialized housing (Schmidt, 2021). Furthermore, Daley and Avant (2014) suggest that although a generalist approach has been deemed best suited for rural practice settings, there is still a need for social workers to hold specialized and advanced skills in specific areas.

There is a need for a mixed model of strength based as well as a collaborative approach that aim to empower individuals and communities in identifying their unique needs for both formal and informal resources. As Riebschelger and Pierce (2018) suggests, rural social workers report that working in these areas requires a great deal of independence, creative thinking in terms of accessing services, and interdependence among service providers. The literature suggests that due to the complexities of issues faced by rural and northern communities, there are higher expectations for social workers not only to fill multiple roles, but also to utilize various practice models to ensure they are meeting the needs of clients and communities.

Daley (2021) expands on the generalist approach to detail the theoretical perspectives that inform his model of rural social work. His model integrates a systems, problem-solving and person-in-environment perspective into the generalist practice. He advocates for an expanded strengths perspective that includes both individual strengths and community assets, and which encourages rural social workers to use the concepts of Geimeinschaft and Gesellschaft from social exchange theory in their assessments (Daley, 2021).

The generalist approach is rooted in systems theory that informs social work assessments by understanding issues on individual, familial, group, organizational and community levels. The problem-solving method provides a guideline to engage, assess and work towards solutions for issues that are presented to social workers by clients, families and communities. The person-in-environment perspective closely aligns with ecological theory by highlighting how the individual and their environment affect each other in both positive and negative ways, and can reinforce behaviors (Barker, 2014; Daley, 2021).

A strengths perspective ensures that social workers review the support systems, resources and capacities at individual, familial and community levels instead of assuming a deficit approach to problems that are presented (Saleebey, 2012). Daley (2021) argues that a strengths perspective is particularly important to counter the stigma against rural peoples present within society that has been perpetrated by popular media. Finally, drawing on social exchange theory, Daley (2021) encourages rural social workers to utilize the concept of Gemeinschaft to understand areas characterized as “local, closely integrated community” whose “members share strong values and beliefs and maintain personal and direct social bonds (Barker, 2014, p. 172). In contrast, urban communities are described by the concept of Gesellschaft, a “complex, impersonal type of society” whose “members possess few shared values and have social bonds that are impersonal, narrow, and strictly functional” (Barker, 2014, p. 177). Both concepts are classic descriptions of rural and urban communities, and most areas fall along a continuum. Rural communities can vary depending on location and geography, and with the arrival of the internet in some communities the classic characterization of rural communities has dramatically changed.

Rural social workers need the ability to be creative, be community based, engage successfully in interdisciplinary work, be open to working with natural helpers in the community, and demonstrate ethical behavior in their private lives. A commitment to continuous learning by rural social workers is vital to the wellbeing of their clients. This commitment includes learning about the social environment in which they are situated, and strengthening their understanding of general values and perspectives. Daley (2021) argues that “the effective rural social worker has to mine the existing books and articles for relevant content on rurality” (p. 37). In my own practical experience, I spent time learning about the history of the Mennonite population that had returned to Canada from colonies in Mexico and Paraguay and whose children were coming to the attention of child protection services. I also endeavored to understand values rooted in their Christian faith that influenced how they raised their children and interacted with the outside world (Harder, 2021). It is important that rural child protection workers understand that parents from conservative religious communities will often seek parenting advice solely from their religious leaders (Loue, 2017).

Understanding the values of any rural community is important for rural child protection workers to be effective (Harder, 2021). Harder (2021) advocates that protection workers should demonstrate “a stance of curiosity about their faith, values and ways of life” (p. 73) that can help to develop trust and a positive working relationship. Schmidt (2021) advocates that social workers complete a community profile that include information on the “history of the community, information on geography and climate, local government structure, important cultural and social events…economic indicators…employment rates, housing stock…and the degree of economic equality and inequality” (pp. 216-217). Without this information it will be more difficult for social workers that are new to the area to develop rapport and effective working relationships with community members.

The practice of cultural humility by rural social workers is critical as rural communities vary and understanding the context of each community helps clarify the socialization of those being served (Daley, 2021; Norris, 2018). In contrast to cultural competence which positions the social worker as the expert in specific cultures, Ortega and Faller (2011) maintain that cultural humility shifts the workers’ stance to one of continually learning about the culture from the clients’ perspective. The specific skills needed to practice cultural humility include active listening, reflecting, reserving judgment, and entering the client’s world. The foundation of these skills is the willingness of the social worker to “develop self-awareness and a respectful attitude toward diverse and multiple points of view” (Ortega & Faller, 2011, p. 44). This perspective fits well with the relational approach to child protection in a rural setting that will be expanded upon further in the next section.


Working with a Suicidal Youth from a Closed Religious Community

  • Sarah (fictional name) was referred by a high school guidance counsellor after she expressed suicidal intentions, refused to go home, and requested to be placed in foster care. Sarah was a member of a closed religious community that had rigid gender expectations. Her suicidality risk was assessed and determined to be non-lethal; however, Sarah was distressed about her home environment which she viewed as very restrictive. She expressed the desire to dress like her school peers but had been warned by her family and church community that these behaviors were forbidden. Sarah was told that her desires were temptations by the devil and could result in her soul being in danger. She had been threatened with expulsion from the church if she continued in her resistance to the church rules.
  • Sarah was placed in a foster home to further assess the situation. It was determined that her family and community had been pressuring her to quit school and fulfill her role as wife and mother. Consultation with colleagues familiar with this particular Christian church indicated that education is equated with the first deadly sin of pride and that members were encouraged to obtain only a level of education that was needed in their future role in life. Women were not encouraged to seek education beyond age 11, as their primary role in life would be as a wife and mother. Male members of the community might continue to age 12 in order to gain a level of education to help with their interactions with the outside world (e.g. basic literacy and numeracy skills) (Good Gingrich, 2016).
  • I began counselling Sarah about other options she might want to explore, including furthering her education.  Later, while consulting with my fellow colleagues I was told that I was using the “f-word” with this youth – feminism! I made attempts to meet with the parents, but in the end was only able to speak with the mother over the phone as she refused a face-to-face meeting. During our telephone conversations, she very clearly expressed that I was “stealing” her daughter and remained deeply concerned for the soul of her child. After a short stay in care, Sarah eventually decided to return to her family, and I was later told that she had quit school and married a young man from her church community shortly afterwards.
  • After reflection, I realized that I had initially been in culture shock as the ideas exposed by this church community were difficult for me to accept.  The devaluing of education was particularly offensive as I was raised in a family where education was highly valued ‒ especially for women. I also found the acceptance of patriarchal beliefs by this church community an affront to my feminist social work practice. It was difficult to practice cultural humility in this situation!



Investigating Child Physical Abuse

  • The agency received a physical abuse allegation of a parent against their young child.  During the assessment exploring the natural helping networks of the family, I arranged to meet with the family pastor. His initial comment to me was very clear that the agency that I represented lacked credibility within their community, as it was “not of God.” He stated that his church members believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible and adhered to the interpretation of the scripture that warned community members that to “spare the rod [is to] spoil the child” in their parenting strategies. I was taken aback by his argument and felt I could not respond adequately due to my own lack of knowledge of biblical text. I was taken aback by his argument and felt I could not respond adequately due to my own lack of knowledge of biblical text and having grown up in a non-Christian home.
  • Afterwards I sought guidance from a pastor that worked with the agency to help me understand this particular interpretation of the Bible. First, the pastor explained that the expression “spare the rod and spoil the child” was not actually a biblical quotation but is found in subsequent theological interpretation of Proverbs 13:24.[1] Depending on the interpretation, the passage can be taken literally or understood as a metaphor for how to discipline children. He explained that his own interpretation of the scripture was that the “rod” referred to a shepherd’s staff which is used by shepherds to guide their animals in the right direction. Shepherds do not use their “rod” to hit the animals as this would damage their livestock! With this interpretation, the pastor suggested that parents should be counselled to use communication rather than physical punishment in guiding their children.
  • The parental use of physical discipline has been hotly debated in Canada (Durrant, 2007).  Several researchers have advocated for the complete abolition of physical punishment of children (Durrant et al., 2017; Straus, 2001). Most child welfare legislation across the country identifies physical abuse as a reason to intervene within a family and potentially remove the children from the home. However, the definitions of physical abuse have been vague and open to interpretation by individual workers. To complicate the issue, until 2004, Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada (1985, s 43) allowed parents to use “reasonable force” in the correction of their children, and had been used as a defense by parents who had been charged with physically assaulting their children. In a landmark case heard by the Supreme Court of Canada, the court identified seven criteria to differentiate between reasonable force and physical abuse in an attempt to “better protect children while still protecting the adults who use corrective force against them” (Durrant et al., 2017). Today, the issue of physical discipline remains controversial and results in challenges for child protection workers responding to allegations of physical abuse.

    [1] Proverbs 13:24 He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes. (King James Bible) or He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently. (New American Standard Bible)


Policy, Practice and Ethical Aspects of Child Welfare in a Rural Setting


The field of child welfare has been described as an “ideological battleground” (Cameron et al., 2007, p. 3) as the policies and practices of the system reflect the current beliefs about children, families and the right of the state to intervene in family affairs. Canadian legislation, policy and practice reflect these shifting beliefs over time. Since the inception of child protection systems, the areas of policy and practice have seen pendulum swings in Western countries between child protection and family support (Cameron et al., 2007). Increased public awareness through sensational media reports (Lonne et al., 2016) and government inquiries highlight the failures of the system, with front line workers accused of either not intervening soon enough to save a child or of intervening in a manner criticized as state overreach (Cameron et al., 2007). As a result, child protection is one of the most difficult and stressful jobs in social work practice (Lonne et al., 2016).

Within rural settings, the family support services that might be more accessible in an urban context are often not available (Belanger et al., 2008). Furthermore, most child welfare policies are developed with an urban lens and reflect little understanding of the rural communities (Delaney & Brownlee, 2009). For example, child welfare policy has encouraged protection workers to access day care services for families at risk, when these services or access to transportation may be unavailable in rural settings.

Rural Child Protection Practice Models

Daley  (2021) presents a good framework for rural social work practice that integrates a strengths perspective; however, child protection workers need to understand the complexity of child protection work and acknowledge the mandate they are charged with, by never underestimating the risk inherent in cases of child abuse and neglect. Turner (2017) argues that “to do child protection work well we need a mind like a steel trap infused with the compassion of the Buddha” (as cited in Oliver, 2017, p. viii). Oliver (2017) similarly presents a strengths-based approach integrated with solution-focused models to highlight the need for positive relationships with families and children involved in the system, while still ensuring assessment of all family members’ safety. Assessment frameworks such as the Signs of Safety® developed by Turnell and Edwards (1999) emphasize the need for relationship-based approaches within child protection practice (Oliver, 2017).

The relational approach to child protection does not seek to “individualise problems and blame parents for not being able to look after their children,” but rather looks for solutions that harness the strengths within the family and community, and provides additional support to help families function well enough to care for their children (Lonne et al., 2016, p. 133). The relational approach combines the “respect for persons and social justice” through the lens of social relations within the family and community (Lonne et al., 2016, p. 133). It is important for child protection workers to acknowledge the power they hold within their positions. It is very easy for child protection workers to become punitive in their interactions with a family, especially when workers lack experience or adequate supervision, in severe cases of child abuse, or when workers are experiencing stress (LeBlanc et al., 2012; Lonne et al., 2016).

de Boer and Coady (2007) advocate that good child protection workers demonstrate a relational approach to families by combining the “soft, mindful and judicious use of power” with a “humanistic attitude and style that stretches traditional professional ways-of-being” (p. 35).  Some of the practice strategies suggested include: an understanding of power and how that impacts families; responding to hostility from parents with compassion and understanding; providing accurate and honest information about the reasons for the involvement of the worker; avoiding prejudgement of referral information by deeply listening to the perspectives of the family; looking for strengths within the family and community; demonstrating a genuine and down-to-earth attitude; developing relationships with the family through small talk; getting to know the whole family utilizing a person-in-environment context; and finally, being hopeful about the family’s ability to cope and to meet mutually-set goals (de Boar & Coady, 2007). Child protection workers need to develop a level of comfort and skill in dealing with tension and potential conflict inherent in child abuse investigations. Karp (1984) outlines the steps in dealing with resistance, which include acknowledging, surfacing and honoring that resistance to deepen the relationship between the worker and parents.

Oliver (2017) developed a model for child protection practice which she describes as “firm, fair and friendly” after interviewing several Canadian child protection workers. She found that many of the workers adapted the strengths perspective by acknowledging the state power inherent in child protection work and using this power constructively to help parents provide better care for their children. Oliver (2017) argues that the field of social work has historically ignored the concept of power within worker-client relations or sought to equalize this power dynamic. The “firm, fair and friendly” practice model seeks to balance collaborative approaches with the use of power constructively. The mandated power that child protection workers hold is acknowledged and interrogated to be used judiciously to ensure child safety. To follow this practice model, child protection workers need to complete their assessments impartially and listen to all the perspectives, so they can fully understand the family dynamics and be continually open to new information. During this process, workers constantly assess their interactions with the family and adjust their use of collaboration and authority techniques accordingly. Finally, the foundation of the model is transparency with the family. Workers need to be honest about the reasons they are involved with the family, and the responsibility and response of the worker and agency to child safety concerns.

The current child welfare system continues to adopt an individual focus in child protection services. Abusive or neglectful parents are assessed without taking into consideration their social location or socioeconomic status. Lonne et al. (2016) argues that the child welfare system needs to move away from this focus on parental blame and the narrow definitions of the best interests of the child towards a relational approach with parents and a focus on family and community networks that will engage meaningfully in problem-solving. The integration of anti-oppressive and feminist approaches within child protection practice are important for rural social workers to help deconstruct organizational and societal contexts such as the overrepresentation of marginalized populations within the child welfare system and focus on how patriarchy plays out in family dynamics (Lonne et al., 2016).


Firm, Fair and Friendly Child Welfare Practice

  • Drawing on my own experience as a child protection worker, there was little guidance on how to engage parents when completing child abuse investigations. Agency training in this area focused on forensic interviewing techniques borrowed from law enforcement to ensure that disclosures obtained would be admissible in any potential criminal court proceedings. Training did not include learning how to handle hostility from parents, or how to use conflict resolution techniques. As result, I remember many of my own or colleagues’ interactions with parents as frustrating, since parents predictably denied culpability and resisted any engagement with the agency.
  • Discussion about the level of power held by child protection workers also did not happen frequently within the workplace. I was advised early in my career that in my role as a child protection worker I held more power than the police to intervene in families. Police usually have to obtain a warrant from a judge to enter private property, whereas child protection workers had the authority to enter a home without a warrant, and to remove the children if they reasonably believed the children might be at risk of abuse or neglect. Thankfully, also early in my career, a very wise supervisor likened the power inherent in child protection work as one side of a coin.  The other side of the coin included the responsibility that I bore to ensure that I knew what I was doing if I ever had to use this power to remove children from their family home.
  • My own practice did include some aspects of the “firm, fair and friendly” model (Oliver, 2017) as I worked to be completely honest with parents about the concern that had come to the attention of the agency, my role, and what needed to be done to allow their children to return home. I also used humour to ease the resistance I encountered by stating one of my goals was to “work myself out of their lives.” With this comment I hoped that parents would work with me, rather than against me, to address the issues.
  • Finally, my own social work practice included trying to suspend any judgements about a family from the initial referral information by listening to as many family members as feasibly possible to develop my own assessment. One of my first experiences when I began my child protection career was to be handed a very thick file from a seasoned child protection worker who told me “forget all that stuff you learned in school – here is the real world and good luck, this family is F$%^#@ and has been involved in child welfare for several generations!” It was a depressing introduction to the field, but I became more determined that day never to prejudge a family until I had completed my own assessment, and not to lose my belief in people’s ability to change. When I first went out to meet the family, I asked that they tell me their story from their own perspective, and I received some very valuable information that was not in the file. I was not naïve that child protection concerns continued in this family situation, but I now had a much deeper understanding of the family dynamics by engaging with the family and allowing them to share their side of the story.

Rural Child Protection Worker Characteristics

Many of the characteristics of effective rural social workers are the same as those needed for successful rural child protection workers. As mentioned earlier, rural social workers need to be creative, community-based, able to work with other professional disciplines, natural helpers, practice cultural humility, and demonstrate ethical behavior in both their practices and their private lives (Daley, 2021). Riebschleger et al. (2015) identify that rural child protection workers need to have knowledge of rural poverty, lack of formal resources, and historical trauma affecting many rural populations. Oliver (2017) maintains that successful child protection workers should demonstrate humility and comfort with the power inherent in their role. Child protection workers who operate from the “firm, fair and friendly” model demonstrate humility by “constantly learning from their clients, their colleagues, their families, and their mistakes” (Oliver, 2017, p. 177). The power within a mandated role includes both the acceptance that child protection is important and necessary work, and conviction that power and authority can be used constructively to help make families safer for children (Tuck, 2013).


Working Across Disciplines

  • Working  rurally requires that child protection workers work closely with collaterals. In my own practice, I worked diligently to develop a good working relationship with members of the local RCMP detachment so that any child abuse investigations could be undertaken in a way that reduces the number of times that victims had to tell their stories. Most jurisdictions mandate interdisciplinary teams for child abuse investigations (Jacobson, 2002); these teams include representatives from child protection and law enforcement, as well as medical personnel. These jurisdictions’ policies allowed interdisciplinary teams the ability to share information and thereby facilitate a coordinated response to child abuse reports.
  • One of the barriers to maintaining these working relationships with RCMP members, in my own practice, was the rotational schedule of the RCMP. In the context in which I was working, the RCMP officers rotated out of the community every two years. I often felt that I had just developed a good working relationship with specific officers only to have them transfer out and then have to repeat the whole process again with new members.
  • My collaboration with local physicians was often more difficult. Several local physicians were resentful of the mandated reporting requirements to local child protection agencies, as they perceived child protection workers as “baby snatchers” that only worked to break up families.  This attitude was demonstrated in a call I once received from a local physician who began the conversation with the statement, “I know that your only response will be to remove the children and break up the family once you are made aware of the situation I have to tell you about.”  I spent some time before receiving the referral explaining that the agency was mandated to make sure that children were safe from any further abuse, but that we would look at a number of alternatives that could ensure that safety. The referral included the alleged sexual abuse of a young child by her father. In this situation, the family agreed to have the father leave the home until the situation could be assessed and to ensure the safety of the child. During the father’s absence from the home, I worked closely with the mother and eventually developed a safety plan that allowed the child to stay in the home. My relationship with the local physician improved after this case, as I had built a mutual understanding that I would work to keep families together as long as the safety concerns could be addressed.
  • It is also important to ensure that local physicians have the capacity to assess child abuse allegations. In one particular case, the agency had received a report of a young female child having been sexually abused. Although the agency was within driving distance of an urban hospital that had a specialized child abuse unit, the child was initially assessed by a local physician who anesthetized the child during the examination. Due to the lack of muscle tone in the genital area, the physician declared that the child had been serially sexually abused, and the child was removed from the home. Further assessment did not result in any disclosure from the child or any corroborating evidence until a further examination was scheduled at the specialized child abuse unit. The second evaluation determined that there was no sign of sexual abuse, and that it was the anesthesia that had caused the lack of muscle tone; anesthesia is never used in the medical examination of child sexual abuse victims. Over the years there have been a number of controversies in the diagnosis of child abuse, when child welfare systems uncritically accept the medical diagnosis of physicians (Gabaeff, 2015; Miller-Perrin & Perrin, 2013). Workers need to develop a good understanding of group dynamics of interdisciplinary teams to ensure that child abuse investigations do not result in harm to families (Cowley et al., 2018).


Ethical Issues in Rural Child Protection Practice

Rural child protection practice involves unique ethical issues that social workers need to be aware of, and they should have the tools and skills to address ethical issues when they arise.  Barsky (2019) argues that within child welfare practice the “value conflicts and ethical issues are pervasive” (p. 383). Daley (2021) highlights the most common ethical dilemmas to face rural social workers are dual relationships, working in a fishbowl, and confidentiality. Lonne et al. (2016) maintains that ethical dilemmas in child protection are linked to “client vulnerability, unequal power relationships and the centrality of relationship in effective ethical practice” (p. 4) while Barsky (2019) identifies ethical dilemmas that involve value conflicts rooted in religious beliefs as particularly challenging.

The Canadian Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics (CASW, 2005) advises social workers to avoid dual relationships, but does not ban these relationships altogether, since dual relationships are often unavoidable in rural communities (Daley, 2021). For social workers in small communities, it is difficult to avoid contact with clients in local grocery stores or at recreational activities (e.g. sports leagues) (Humble et al., 2013). Piché et al. (2015) highlight that some social workers responded to these challenges by limiting their social life within the community; however, this avoidance can lead to social isolation. Daley (2021) advocates that managing dual relationships includes conversations with clients to strategize how to address contact in the community to protect the confidentiality of the clients. For ethical breaches in dual relationships it is important that agencies develop clear guidelines and policies on dealing with these ethical breaches.

Confidentiality in social work practice is a complex area and requires that rural social workers consult regularly with colleagues, supervisors, and their provincial regulatory bodies when ethical dilemmas arise. One of the major challenges to confidentiality is the receipt of third-party information when working in rural communities (Halverson et al., 2009). The community size and personal connections among individuals results in most people having information about each other (Piché et al., 2015). Agency staff within child protection agencies, who have resided in rural communities for years, often have relevant information about community members that is typically not available to urban child protection workers. In my own experience, these agency staff can provide valuable informatio[1]n on new protection intakes which allow an initial assessment on the risk to the child, family history, natural helpers, and any risk of violence towards the worker. Child protection assessments rely on accurate information so the worker can make informed decisions and plan successful interventions. On the other side, although I may have been made aware of some information from agency staff members, I was always very cautious to complete my child protection assessment from my direct interactions with the family and significant others. I also would ask families to give me their perspectives on any “community stories” that had been shared with me.

Consultations  with colleagues are very helpful in working through ethical dilemmas. The structure of the rural child protection unit in which I was employed allowed for discussion about ethical dilemmas within the weekly team meetings where critical decisions (e.g. removal or return of a child to their family) were made. The role of the supervisor was critical in creating the environment for healthy dialogue about how some of our own values could be affecting our decision making. I recall one contentious family situation that involved emotional abuse and neglect. The father was observed to be verbally abusive towards his young child, who was exhibiting concerning behaviors (e.g. being silent when playing with his toys so as not to elicit an angry response from his father); the mother was assessed as often neglectful of the basic needs of the child. One member of the team strongly advocated for the child’s removal, as she argued that the threshold had been met for child abuse; however, other team members felt that removal of the child without any physical injuries would be difficult to prove in court, and that premature removal of the child could be more detrimental to the child’s wellbeing. In one team meeting, this worker strongly advocated for apprehension of the child to “teach the father a lesson,” but was quickly challenged. Further discussion by the team helped this worker acknowledge how her anger and frustration with the parents’ behaviour was impacting her assessment of the family situation. Decisions about child abuse and neglect are difficult due to imprecise laws (see case scenario on investigating child physical abuse), recognition that child abuse and neglect are socially constructed concepts that are influenced by personal and societal attitudes, and challenges of accurately predicting child protection risk especially in cases of less extreme abuse and neglect concerns (Barsky, 2019).

Ethical decision making includes social workers that practice reflective and reflexive practice as “child abuse and neglect are socially constructed phenomena, and prone to blame, prejudice, discrimination and othering” (Lonne et al., 2016). Reflective practice includes the ability to critically reflect on social work knowledge, values and policy alternatives to ensure that the actions taken in child welfare practice are effective. Rural child protection workers need to continually review their positionality and how their “ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion and other factors create our identity and biases” (Schmidt, 2021, p. 212). Reflexivity widens the lens to help social workers deconstruct current child protection practice to the prevailing societal ideologies (Payne, 2009). Within my own practice, I needed to examine my own values about child abuse and neglect and reflect deeply when I found myself becoming angry about the abuse children were suffering and slipping into punitive responses towards parents. Child welfare organizations need to encourage open dialogue about differing values about parenting and child abuse and how these values can impact individual social workers’ practice.


Working in the Fish Bowl

  • An agency worker began an intimate relationship with a married community member who provided volunteer services to the agency. As a result of the relationship, the community member’s marriage broke down. News of the marital breakup quickly spread through the local grapevine, and the credibility and reputation of the agency was deeply impacted. Prior to this event, the agency had engaged in a public awareness campaign to highlight the support services it offered to help families. The impact of the behaviour of the agency worker damaged the reputation of the agency and was very difficult for those agency staff who lived in the community. The agency staff who lived in the community cited several incidents in which they were confronted in public places about the behavior of the agency worker and how this damaged their perception of the support services the agency was offering. Rural social workers need to understand their personal behaviour is constantly under scrutiny within small communities (Daley, 2021) and that any mistakes can be very difficult to repair (Schmidt, 2021).
Safety for Child Protection Workers in Rural Settings

One prominent issue for workers involved in child protection is personal safety. Several cases in which I was involved included parents (especially fathers) with a history of violence, and who were often angry about my role in agency intervention. In rural areas there is also easy access to firearms, as guns are used for hunting and safety issues related to lack of easily accessible police services and potentially-dangerous wildlife. In one case, extreme domestic violence towards the mother also endangered the children in the home. The father had threatened both me and the police if the children were removed from his care. When the children were apprehended, my male team colleagues ensured my safety by driving behind me on the way home for a few weeks. Eventually, when the child was returned to the mother’s care the father was allowed visitation rights and a male worker was assigned to work with the father.

Historically, child welfare agencies have not had policies to ensure the safety of workers.  Increasingly, agency workers and their unions have advocated for mandatory buddy systems when dealing with clients who have a history of violence; also recommended are official policies to guide both workers and their supervisors when clients have demonstrated or threatened physical violence. Child protection workers should become trained in safety precautions and de-escalation techniques (Hawranick et al., 2009). Under most child welfare legislation in Canada, workers can also request the assistance of law enforcement for child apprehensions.

Another way to ensure my safety as a protection worker was for my supervisor not to assign me any cases for the small town in which I lived that was within the catchment area of the agency. This practice did not always provide complete anonymity, as families involved with the agency often travelled between different towns for recreational purposes (e.g. hockey leagues) and there was always a chance that I would run into clients in my off hours. Unfortunately, for many workers in more isolated communities this practice is not possible (Hawranick et al., 2009).


It is apparent that “rurality affects practice” (Daley, 2021, p. 212) and that there are distinct practice realities for rural child protection workers requiring specific skills. Ginsberg maintains that rural social work is “simply good social work that reflects and considers the environment in which practice takes place” (as cited in Daley, 2021, p. 4). Providing child protection in a rural setting compounds the challenges of the work; however, when workers are informed by relational approaches that integrate strengths-based solutions, problem solving models, and critical perspectives it is possible for child protection workers to be effective. As described by Turnell (2010), “the best child protection practice is always both forensic and collaborative and demands that professionals are sensitized to and draw upon every scintilla of strength, hope and human capacity they can find within the ugly circumstances where children are abused” (p. 21). The work of child protection is not for the faint of heart, but when done well, and when engagement and supports are offered so that families and children can thrive, it can be a rewarding social work career.

Activities and Assignments
  • Cultural Humility: Have there been times when you felt uncomfortable in a setting outside your own culture?
    • What specifically made you uncomfortable?
    • Reflecting on your own cultural lens, how could you have approached the situation with Sarah with cultural humility?
  • Values about Parenting: Identify your family values with respect to spanking. Review the criteria outlined in the Criminal Code of Canada on reasonable force that can be used to correct children.
    • What was the perception of spanking within your family? Do you still adhere to these values about spanking?
    • What would be your response to parents who feel they have the right to spank their children based on religious beliefs?

  • Power: Review the definition of power provided in this chapter. Make a list of the different types of power.
    • What is your own comfort level with the power inherent in child protection work?
    • What, if any, are your concerns with social workers having power over their clients?
  • Natural Helpers: Reflecting on your own experience, identify the natural helpers that existed within your own community and/or family.
    • What are the benefits and challenges of working with natural helpers?
    • How difficult would it be for you to work with natural helpers that hold different values from your own? Why?
Additional Resources
  • Daley, M. R. (2021). Rural social work in the 21st century: Serving individuals, families, and communities in the countryside (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.
  • Oliver, C. (2017). Strengths-based child protection: Firm, fair, and friendly. University of Toronto Press.


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Rural and Northern Social Work Practice: Canadian Perspectives Copyright © 2022 by Cathy Rocke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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