Ontario’s privacy legislation should not stop teachers, health care providers, social workers and police from sharing information with children’s aid workers when kids are at risk.
That is the message in a new guide aimed at dispelling myths around information sharing with children’s aid societies. The guide was released Wednesday by the province’s privacy commissioner and child advocate.
Testimony at numerous coroner’s inquests have shown that professionals often refuse to provide information under the misguided belief that privacy legislation prevents them from doing so, said Irwin Elman, Ontario’s advocate for children and youth.
The unprecedented collaboration between the two independent officers of the legislature is an attempt to clear up any confusion, Elman said.
“For me it comes from the Jeffrey Baldwin inquest and the jury’s recommendation for clarifications around the duty to report,” Elman said in an interview. “So I went to the privacy commissioner, and we said this is something we could do to contribute.”
Testimony at the 2013-14 inquest into the starvation death of the 5-year-old boy revealed that many professionals feel restricted by privacy legislation when dealing with children’s aid societies.
Jeffrey died in 2002 while in the care of his maternal grandparents who were later found to have been convicted of abusing their own children. The couple was convicted of second-degree murder in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison.
At the inquest, the jury heard that a police officer who went to the Baldwin home with a child protection worker didn’t know what he could tell the worker, Elman said. (Police can share any information, including a person’s criminal record, if the officer suspects a child may be at risk.)
During cross-examination with school board officials, it became evident that there was a general lack of understanding about what information teachers and other school staff can share with children’s aid workers, Elman added. (Any school staff — even those who didn’t make the initial report to a children’s aid society — can provide information.)
“While well-intentioned, refusal to share information about a child in need of protection may leave the child at risk of harm,” the guide warns.
Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish said he hopes the 15-page booklet, entitled Yes, You Can, will help professionals understand that privacy laws are not a barrier to information sharing when a child is at risk.
“As privacy commissioner, I’m glad people have (privacy) top of mind,” he said. “But there are occasions (when) not only may information be disclosed, but it must be disclosed... Privacy can’t be used as an excuse where action is justified or required by law.”
The booklet, which gives examples based on real-life situations, is available online and will be distributed in printed form to school boards, hospitals, police, social agencies and children’s aid societies.
“This is a case where we were able to collaborate... to put out some guidance that we think is in the public interest,” Beamish said. “We hope it will ease fears and give some assurance to people that information sharing is OK.”
Duty to report:
Under Ontario Child and Family Services Act, if a person has reasonable grounds to suspect a child is in need of protection, the person must immediately report the suspicion and the information on which it is based to a children’s aid society. This obligation applies to any person, including professionals dealing with the child and applies despite provisions of any other legislation.
• If a CAS worker is investigating a child at school and the school did not instigate the investigation, teachers and any school staff are free to provide any pertinent information that may assist in the probe.
• If a CAS worker contacts a child’s doctor, nurse or other health care professional, that person may disclose personal health information to assist in the investigation. (Personal Health Information Protection Act)
• Nothing in Ontario’s privacy laws prohibits police accompanying CAS workers on child abuse investigations from disclosing information — including criminal records — if the officer suspects a child is at risk. Police and children’s aid can share information during joint investigations of the same caregivers and children.
• If social services staff witness an interaction between a parent and child that triggers a report to CAS, staff can tell investigators what they saw and anything else they know about the family.
Ontario's Privacy Laws:
• Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA.) Governs most public and private sector workers and institutions.
• Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA.) Governs municipal employees, teachers and police.
• Personal Health Information Protection Act 2004 (PHIPA.) Governs doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and others working in health care.