The Retreat from ‘Least Intrusive Intervention’ in Canadian Child Protection Law

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Children and Family Services Act, Nova Scotia, Intervention, Child Protection Law


I got thinking about this broader topic as my own province of Nova Scotia in Canada dramatically reversed itself legislatively in 2015, with a full-scale retreat from the principles of "least intrusive intervention" in our previous Children and Family Services Act (CFSA). Our modern Act came into effect in 1991, reflecting the "least intrusive" approach in its preamble and in its detailed provisions governing the protection process. Nova Scotia is not alone amongst Canadian provinces in retreating by legislation and practice, just the latest to do so.

From 1984 to 1995, most Canadian provinces enacted child protection statutes that incorporated, to a greater or lesser degree, the principles of "least intrusive intervention". Over that same period, social work practice on the ground incorporated some, but not all, of those principles. Starting in the mid-1990s, however, the pendulum began to swing back towards greater interventionism, both in legislation and in practice.

Why have Canadian legislators and protection agencies backed away from the animating ideas of "least intrusive intervention"? That's the main topic of this article. I will use the concrete Canadian experience in its nine common-law provinces to offer broader lessons that may, or may not, resonate outside our borders.

First, what do we mean by the "principles of least intrusive intervention" in child protection law and practice? Second, when and how did these principles become the backbone of many Canadian protection statutes? Third, a closer look at the legislated grounds for intervention and removal of children from their homes will provide more specific examples of these principles. Fourth, I will review what little empirical data we have about the impact of these provisions in child protection practice. I will then conclude with some reference to Aboriginal child welfare issues in this context.