Ontario Child Welfare Research Framework

Designed by the OACAS Research Evaluation Advisory Committee, the Ontario Child Welfare Research Framework responds to the child welfare sector’s desire to have greater influence over research questions that are explored along the service continuum, better coordinate the management of external researchers’ requests, leverage the use of provincial databases, and foster mobilization of research knowledge across the field.

Advancing practices, Improving processes, Leveraging resources


In November 2011, the OACAS held a research consultation with its members in order to identify strategic areas and a broad set of guidelines and processes for research in the Ontario Child Welfare Sector.  A committee comprised of representatives from the OACAS, agency members, and academics was established to develop a research framework.  The Committee met several times in a two year period.

This framework is intended to be a web supported document and is designed to be easily navigated by the reader providing important and summative information about research in Ontario child welfare. The OACAS Research Evaluation Advisory Committee has recommended that this document be periodically updated to reflect new research in the province and to maintain its relevance to the field.

The first section of the document provides a brief overview of the legal and theoretical context for child welfare research. The second section describes key research principles and directions and the third section provides a summary of resources and materials available to the Ontario child welfare sector that should be considered prior to embarking on a research initiative.

The list of the Appendices accompanying this framework:

  • Summary table of research questions: Appendix A
  • Summary of Ontario and Canadian datasets: Appendix B
  • Ethical Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Child Welfare:  Appendix C
  • Summary of Research Methodologies:  Appendix D


Child and Family Services Act

In 2008, over 5 percent of children (54.05 per 1,000 children), 15 years of age and under were identified to the child welfare system in Ontario with a maltreatment related concern (OIS-2008).  Referrals about protection or well-being concerns for children are made to a Children’s Aid Society which is given its authority by the Child and Family Services Act.  Ontario’s 47 Children’s Aid Societies and Family and Children’s Services are the only child welfare agencies mandated by the Ontario Government to protect children from harm. Children’s Aid Societies work with service partners and the community to ensure the safety, well-being, and stability of children and youth.

According the Child and Family Services Act, grounds for initiating a child protection investigation in Ontario include situations in which physical, sexual or emotional harm or the risk of such harm, to a child under the age 16 has occurred as a result of the actions or inaction of a caregiver.  Situations in which there is a risk of physical, sexual or emotional harm to the child are also grounds for investigation in order to determine future risk of harm.

In addition to defining when a child is in need of protection, the Child and Family Services Act also outlines guidelines for research, specifically:

(10)  A person who is engaged in research may, with the Director’s written approval, inspect and use the information in the register, but shall not,

(a) use or communicate the information for any purpose except research, academic pursuits or the compilation of statistical data; or

(b) communicate any information that may have the effect of identifying a person named in the register. R.S.O. 1990, c. C.11, s. 75 (10).

Ecological Approach

The theoretical framework used in a research study depends on the question(s) being posed. However, the use of an ecological theoretical framework is generally a useful starting point for research with the child welfare community. Ecological theory focuses on individuals and their social/environmental context and posits that abuse and neglect result from multiple factors within each person’s context.  These factors are divided into five nested systems: individual, family, community, culture, and the passage of time (Bronfenbrenner, 1986). Included in these systems are the following influences: peers, school, workplace, economic factors, child-rearing history, child characteristics, parent characteristics, marital relationship, social support, and socio-cultural milieu. Using the person-in-environment perspective is consistent with the values of the social work profession which places emphasis on contextual factors. Whether or not child maltreatment occurs within a family system depends on the balance between risk factors and protective factors contained in each of the sub-systems.

The primary limitation of ecological theory is that it is difficult to identify the relative influences of biological factors, learned behaviours, social interactions, community environment, and various contextual conditions (Belsky, 1980, 1993; Garbarino, 1982).  Therefore, it may be impossible to delineate the specific causes of an event, possibly resulting in conflicting interpretations of an event.  Given such complexity, causal order, in a traditionally linear sense, might not be obtained using ecological theory.  However, because the potential factors that contribute to child maltreatment are numerous and diverse, the capacity to measure these factors is restricted.  A theoretical perspective that is not based upon direct causation but considers and evaluates the interaction of multiple factors is an appropriate framework for understanding and intervening in the prevention and treatment of child maltreatment.  Figure 1 (adapted from Fallon, 2005) illustrates ecological theory and highlights how the final product of research should always be aimed at improving client outcomes.

Figure 1: Theoretical framework

theoretical framework

Child Welfare Research Philosophy

Research in the Ontario child welfare sector should reflect key principles: (1) acknowledge the diversity of families and children served by the child welfare sector as a priority; (2) focus on substantive areas identified as priorities for the sector from the initial consultation and other feedback loops (Q Net Performance Indicators);  (3) ensure that the findings from the research conducted is widely disseminated to the field in order to inform and improve practice; and (4) include the community, agency and families in meaningful aspects of the research process.


Child welfare practice in Ontario reflects the diverse nature of families and children served by the sector.  As such important research priority areas include issues of ethno-racial diversity, aboriginal children and families, francophone services, and geographical location (e.g. urban vs. rural).

Research Priority Areas

The consultation with the field revealed a number of priority areas for research along the service continuum (refer to Appendix A for summary table with all questions).  The importance of understanding diversity in the Ontario Child welfare sector was evident in many of the questions posed. Key questions included:

  • Screening and Intake: Are there urban/rural differences in the level of available resources? How well do agencies work with partners in the community? What are the practices associated with customized versus traditional responses?
  • Ongoing Services: Is the risk assessment valid with respect to Ontario children and families? Do assessment tools reflect the new vision for child welfare? How can child welfare agencies assess the social determinants of child health and well-being?
  • Foster and Group Care: What strategies can we pursue in order to better understand the needs of children and youth before they come into care? What factors influence outcomes of care?
  • Continued Care and Support for Youth: How can we maintain engagement with youth beyond 21? What services exist for youth beyond age 21? What services are effective in supporting adolescents in the transition to adulthood?

Knowledge Mobilization and Dissemination: Partnerships and Ownership

Collaboration and partnerships should be a guiding principal for all research initiatives, with the intention of facilitating co-creation of knowledge amongst community and academic professionals. Results should be disseminated to agency partners and the broader field to help inform and improve practice and policy and to avoid redundancy in research.  It is the obligation of researchers to give the results of the study back to the agencies and provincial child welfare system through different channels such as: one-page summaries, presentations, webinars, videos summarizing the results, OACAS journal article, or practice notes for example.  The purpose of sharing the research results is to promote utilization of the information and impact child welfare practice.


Whenever possible, researchers are encouraged to use existing Provincial datasets which can be used to answer some of the research priority areas (see appendix B for a summary of Ontario and Canadian datasets).  As well, there is potential for these datasets to be merged so that research questions can be expanded along the service continuum (e.g. connect intake data to child outcome data).

The Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal provides access to research on Canadian child welfare programs and policies. Users can find information on statistics, legislation, research and researchers, publications and reports.

Ethical Framework

Families and children involved with the child welfare sector represent some of our most vulnerable populations.  As such, appropriate ethical considerations and procedures are in place to protect the rights of these individuals.  Some of these considerations include informed consent, maximizing benefits and minimizing risks, fair selection of participants, and the expected value of the research.  The process for ensuring each of these considerations is met, varies across CASs and will require research partners to ensure that they are following the appropriate procedures with each agency they are involved.  For a more detailed overview of the ethical framework please refer to the “Ethical Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Child Welfare” Q-Net 2012 report (Appendix C).

Types of Research

Evidence hierarchies reflect the relative authority or generalizability of various types of quantitative research designs.  Although there is no single universally accepted hierarchy of quantitative evidence, there is a broad agreement on the relative strength of common types of quantitative research.  As you move up towards the top of the hierarchy, the ability to generalize increases.  Randomized control trials, for example, rank above observational studies.

types of research

Maximizing the utility of research requires an understanding of the different types of research and how the findings from each can be combined and complemented.  For a more detailed summary of research methodology please see Appendix D.


There are two overarching goals for any child that has been reported to a mandated child welfare service: (1) to prevent the recurrence of maltreatment; and (2) to prevent or address the negative sequelae of child maltreatment.  This document is intended to be a tool for the Ontario child welfare sector to use when conducting research that supports these endeavours.


Belsky, J.(1980). An ecological integration. American Psychologist, 35(4), 320-335.

Belsky (1993). Etiology of child maltreatment. A developmental-ecological analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114(3), 413-434.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1986). Ecology of the family as a context for human development: Research perspectives. Developmental Psychology, 22(6), 723-742.

Child and Family Services Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. C.11 (CFSA).

Fallon, B., Trocmé, N., MacLaurin, B., Sinha, V., Black, T., Felstiner, C., et al. (2012). Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect 2008: Major Findings. Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal.

Fallon, B. (2005). Factors driving case dispositions in child welfare services: Challenging conventional wisdom about the importance of organizations and workers. Thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto.

Garbarino, J. (1982). Children and families in the social environment. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine.

Researchers are encouraged to align their research with the current five provincial priorities of the child welfare field.

The five provincial priorities are:


  • Restoration of jurisdiction of Aboriginal child welfare services back to Aboriginal communities and agencies
  • The need for appropriate funding models that address and account for the costs of working in and serving remote populations
  • Recognition of the greater ‘weight’ of Aboriginal child welfare files
    • Resources and effort required to meet client needs while complying with legal requirements
    • Need for and funding of models that are culturally specific and effective, including customary care and unique approaches to crisis intervention
  • Capacity building for Aboriginal agencies and investment in community infrastructure

Funding & Funding Model

  • How increasing child welfare volumes (increasing service demand) may be addressed over time


  • Raising the age of child protection to age 18
  • Allowing youth in care to stay in their foster homes longer to allow for continued support
  • Extending the age of eligibility for financial and other ongoing supports from the age of 21 to 24
  • Support for mentors known to youth in care

Early Protection: keeping children safe and supporting families

  • Delivering child protection services when the risk of child abuse or neglect is first known in order to assist families in managing problems before they become entrenched and harm occurs
  • Admission prevention services
  • Ensuring that CASs are supported in preventing the circumstances that lead to high risks for children

Permanency & Adoption

  • Availability of resources to enable families to adopt children with exceptional needs
  • Accessible post-adoption support services

Ontario Looking after Children Dataset (OnLAC)
Children in-care for at least one year in the province of Ontario
Principal Investigator: Dr. Robert Flynn, University of Ottawa OACAS

  • Survey data
  • Longitudinal
  • 10 years
  • Sample size = approximately 7,000 for 2012

Ontario Incidence Study (OIS)
Family cases opened for investigation in Ontario
Principal Investigator: Dr. Barbara Fallon, University of Toronto

  • Survey data
  • Cross sectional
  • Sample size =7,471 for 2008

Canadian Incidence Study (CIS)
Family cases opened for investigation in Canada
Principal Investigator: Dr. Nico Trocme, McGill University

  • Survey data
  • Cross sectional
  • Sample size = 15,980 for 2008

Ontario Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (OCANDS)
Child-specific, event-level, longitudinal database that has the capacity to follow children and families from initial report straight through to termination of services for crown wards and those on Continued Care and Support for Youth.
Principal Investigator: Dr. Barbara Fallon, University of Toronto

  • Administrative data

Toronto teens involved with child welfare
Principal Investigator: Dr. Christine Wekerle, McMaster University

  • Self-reported survey data
  • Longitudinal
  • Sample size = 218

Canadian Census Data
Canada-wide demographic and population information
Statistics Canada

  • Survey data
  • Longitudinal
  • Sample size = 33 476 688 for 2011

Agencies are likely to engage in different forms of research depending on the issue. A brief summary of methodologies is provided below.

Characteristics of Basic and Applied Research

Basic Research Applied Research
Problem selection determined by: Individual researcher Employer or sponsor
Researcher intrinsically motivated by: Intellectual curiosity and satisfaction in advancing knowledge Commitment to promote the public welfare
The goal is: Generalized theoretical understanding Cost-effective reduction of social problems
Rigor of methods based on: Disciplinary norms of scholarship Uses to which results may be put
Preoccupied with: Internal validity External validity
Research arena tends to be the: Laboratory Real-world setting
Dissemination of knowledge by: Publication in learned, technical journals Communication with lay decision makers
Source: adapted from Fishman and Neigher (1982) and Freeman and Rossi (1984), as cited in Singleton, R.A & Straits, B.C. (2010). Approaches to Social Research (5th ed). New York: Oxford University Press.

Quantitative Research

Quantitative data is more generalizable to a larger population.  When data is able to generalize to the larger population, we are able to more confidently attribute any findings as true, real world affairs.

There are a variety of different quantitative research designs or strategies that can be used.  What distinguishes between different methodologies is the extent to which results can be generalized to the greater population.  Generalizability is increased by double blind random assignment of participants into groups, inclusion of a control group, sufficient sample size, standardized tools, and statistical significance.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research may be useful in helping to interpret quantitative findings, and may provide deeper understanding about how participants feel about a program, or what is being studied.  Qualitative research is also helpful when researchers have no existing theories or hypotheses and contextual information can be used to build new theories. Generally speaking, the objective of this type of research is to look for themes and patterns exclusive to the set of participants involved in the study.

Qualitative researchers ask broader questions and collect text data from participants.  Qualitative data is more detailed and “rich”, and often involves detailed verbal discussions. However, it is rather time consuming and is less generalizable to a larger population. Therefore, knowledge claims that can result from qualitative methodologies are generally restricted to the participants who participated in the research. Unlike studies that employ quantitative methodologies, qualitative methods speak more specifically to the unique experiences of individuals.

Mixed Methods

To benefit from the advantages of both quantitative and qualitative research, researchers have combined both of these methodologies.  Termed mixed methods approach, qualitative data is used to provide meaning to quantitative numbers.  For instance, a survey on client satisfaction may be complimented by focus groups.  This allows researchers to gain a more in-depth understanding of the meaning of a numerical response.  Since we are collecting data in multiple formats (e.g., numbers and words), if results converge, it increases our confidence that the results are valid.

Research Methodology Key Advantages Key Disadvantages Ability to Generalize
Meta Analysis Summarizes findings from multiple studies and arrive at an overview if an issue being evaluated or questioned. Derives an effect size of the interested conceptControls for variation between studiesCan examine the influence of other moderating variables A small sample of studies can result in non-significant findingsDoes not control for unsound studies that are included in the meta-analysis A+
Multi-site Replication Experiment or intervention is repeated at multiple sites. Able to triangulate results across multiple studies that may use different methodologiesProvides reliability that would not be present in a single-site study Does not provide an estimate of the magnitude of effect A
Randomized Control Studies (e.g., clinical trials with a control group) Compares the outcomes of two groups, who are randomly selected and assigned to either the experimental (or intervention) group, or the control group (no-treatment). Addresses concerns associated with sampling biasConsidered one of the most reliable forms for scientific evidence Costly and time consumingMay not capture unique contextual effectsMay be difficult to study rare eventsPossible ethical concerns A-
Quasi-experiments (e.g., large scale studies, experimental studies using convenient groups) Compares outcomes of two groups, such as children or youth in the treatment, and control group. However, the participants are not randomly assigned to their respective groups. May be more sensitive to contextual effectsFor ethical reasons, random assignment may not be possible (e.g. assigning children to services and withholding services for some)May make some studies more feasible May lack the rigour associated with a controlled setting in which data is collected (e.g. cannot eliminate the confounding effects of third variables, although this can be addressed statistically) B
Single-case experiments One subject is studied over time Designs are sensitive to individual differences (e.g. the individual serves as their own control)Highly flexibleSensitive to the context of the individual Effects of previous phase carry-over into the next phaseThe sequence of intervention can influence resultsDifficult to generalize results to the population B-
Descriptive Studies Research design used to look for relationships between variables. Provides some insight into how variables are related Does not speak to causal relationshipDoes not account for confounding factors B-

Click on the link below to view Ethical Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Child Welfare, prepared by Q-Net: Ontario Child Welfare Quality Network.

Ethical Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Child Welfare

Researchers are encouraged to reach out to the OACAS Research Evaluation Advisory Committee if any of the following scenarios apply:

  • You would like some assistance from child welfare professionals and researchers in refining your initial research to align it to the most pressing questions in child welfare practice
  • You have developed research ideas in the format of a proposal (reviewed by a research ethics board that adheres to the published guidelines of the Tri-Council Policy Statement if you are in academia) and require endorsement from the child welfare field, and access to Ontario’s children’s aid societies
  • You are interested in obtaining representation from children’s aid societies, to be on an advisory committee for a research project

Contact information:

Kevin Chin
kevin.chin@oacas.org or 647-925-3005

Conversations about research ideas at an early stage can be helpful in refining the focus of research questions and ensuring that studies answer the most pressing questions in child welfare practice. The OACAS Research Evaluation Advisory Committee can suggest potential research questions to researchers through its knowledge of key provincial performance indicator data, other data sets, and current realities and challenges in child welfare practice.

Researchers should submit their research proposal, ethics approval letter (if applicable) and a statement of how the findings will be disseminated back to the child welfare sector, and the anticipated workload on child welfare agencies. The Committee will review proposals and indicate the status of approval to researchers within 8 weeks of submission.

Submission Checklist:

  • Research Proposal
  • Tri-council ethics approval letter (if applicable)
  • Statement of dissemination
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