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Child Sexual Abuse in Canada

Warning Signs, Steps to Take, Emotional Effects, Employment Effects, Adult Relationships, Criminal Charges

Child sexual abuse is one of the most misunderstood and underreported crimes in Canada. Most commonly the perpetrators of sexual abuse against children are not strangers, but those closest to the child. This includes family members, mentors, priests, teachers, etc. Because these abusers are in a position of trust toward the child, they have both the opportunity to abuse and are able to convince the child that:

a) the behaviour is okay or normal
b) not to report the behaviour (by using either threats or promises)
c) if the child reports the behaviour they will not be believed

The relationship of influence and trust is the #1 reason child abuse is rarely reported. It is important to recognize this reality and identify warning signs of child sexual abuse:

Most Serious Warning Signs:
  • trauma/pain in sexual areas
  • infections, STDs
  • interest in sexual acts
  • sexual play with friends/others
  • sophisticated knowledge of sex
  • asking unusual sex related questions
Other Warning Signs:
  • bed wetting
  • insomnia, nightmares
  • interest in sexual acts
  • loss of appetite
  • fear or a certain place or location
  • aggressive behaviour

If you suspect a loved one is being sexually abused and/or you recognized some or many of the above noted warning signs, it's time to act now.

Steps to Take

The appropriate action to take depends on your relation to the child. If you are a third party that is aware of a child being sexually abused, you ought to report it to the local Children's Aid Society in your Province/County. 

If you are the parent or guardian of a child who reports, or you suspects, is being sexually abused, it is crucial that you facilitate honest and open discussion with the child about exactly what happened. To do this effectively the child must feel comfortable in talking to you. Usually the most important thing you can do to make the child feel comfortable is to ensure the child that you believe what they are telling you (especially considering the child may have been told by their abuser that nobody would believe them). It is also crucial that you do not place blame on the child for the abuse. Remember not to place blame by asking questions that suggest fault on the part of the child, such as: "why didn't you tell me earlier?"

The next step is usually to contact a health professional (medical Doctor) to collect evidence and perform needed health tests (such as checking for STDs and other trauma/infections). Do not wash or bath the child before such medical examinations as this may destroy evidence. Depending on the circumstances, and the Province you are in, the Doctor may also have a positive duty to report the abuse to the local Children's Aid Society for an investigation.

The Doctor may suggest the child see a mental health professional, or you as a parents, may decide it is beneficial to the child's recovery.

While we recognize that reporting sexual abuse to the police can be a traumatic experience for victims, we encourage reporting the crime to the police immediately (other children may be in significant danger). For more information on the criminal process, click here.

Emotional Effects

The emotional effects of child sexual abuse range from mild to extreme. Some people are simply better able to move on with their lives than others. It is, however, quite common for victims of child sexual abuse to suffer throughout their adult lives.

The most common emotional effects/feelings include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Intimacy problems
  • Persistent Fear
  • Deviant behaviour
  • Self-doubt
  • Shame
  • Substance Abuse
  • Flashbacks
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Suicidal Thoughts

The emotional effects of child sexual abuse commonly persist long into adulthood. The victim commonly feels trapped by mental pain which lays the groundwork for significant life problems. While effects differ among individual victims, sexual abuse tends to dramatically damage the victim's ability to earn living and sustain adult relationships.

Employment Effects

The loss of job and earning opportunities is often forgotten when discussing the impact of child sexual abuse. While not a direct effect, the indirect damage of childhood sexual abuse can significantly harm the victim's ability to earn a living as an adult.

Victims are commonly plagued by depression, lacking communication skills, frequent missed worked days for medical reasons, and an inability to forge relationships with bosses and managers.  The effects of child sexual abuse can also compromise an individual's ability to gain marketable skills. Many victims drop out of school, or choose not to obtain a post secondary education, due to feeling unable to cope with the emotions of their past.

The alienation felt by victims also can lead to the development of substance abuse problems that not only directly effect one's ability to earn a living, but also can lead to criminal behaviour which itself is incredibly harmful to one's career.

The potential financial loss resulting from child sexual abuse is enormous, which has led many to file civil lawsuits against abusers to recoup some of these losses.

Adult Relationships

The feelings of shame, humiliation, guilt, and mistrust towards other people felt by child sex abuse victims negatively impact their ability to form and maintain adult relationships. These feelings are compounded by a sense of isolation routed in the fact other people, who haven't been abused, are unable to comprehend and understand the damage it causes. 

Driven by a fear and a perceived lack of understanding, many victims choose not to report the abuse or tell anybody about it - even their closest life partners in adulthood. As a result
marital troubles, which are rooted in the emotional damage caused by the abuse, are attributed to other factors, such as commonly matrimonial disputes.

Many times, victims are unable to develop close relationships leading to marriage or wind up losing a marriage to a painful divorce. While we cannot correct all of the emotional damage caused by sexual abuse, we can promote the understanding of the magnitude of its impact on victims. This will help combat isolation and encourage victims to seek help.

If you suspect a loved may have been sexually abused as a child, educate yourself and consider talking to a professional counsellor before confronting or asking them about it. While communication could help matters significantly, mishandling the situation could also cause an incredible amount of pain for the victim.

Criminal Charges

Assuming the assailant is still alive, it is possible to persue criminal charges against the assailant even if the assault occurred decades ago. While it remains possible to press charges, the ability to effectively prosecute such offenders may be diminished because of such things as dying witnesses and fading memories. That being said, there are numerous cases of successful prosecutions that occurred decades after abuse.

The decision to pursue criminal charges against an assailant is deeply personal and should not be forced upon the victim by anyone. To many victims, the thought of pressing charges is incredibly stressful and emotionally disturbing. Having a family member attempt to force them into pressing charges is perhaps the worst thing imaginable to them.

For more information, see our page on the criminal process. We also maintain a sentencing table which details sentences for sex offenders across Canada.

Disclaimer: All information on this page is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice or presumed to be completely accurate, or infinitely up to date. If you have questions regarding your case, please contact a local lawyer immediately because there are time limitations on civil claims. Failure to contact a local lawyer immediately could prevent you from making a claim.
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