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Story: Child abuse

The public attitude to child abuse has altered over the years – in the 19th century a degree of violence was tolerated. In the early 2000s families and neighbours are encouraged to speak out if they witness children being harmed or neglected.

Story by Bronwyn Dalley
Main image: Never shake a baby campaign poster

Story Summary

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Child abuse occurs when parents or caregivers use physical violence on their children, sexually or emotionally abuse them, or neglect them.

Almost half of New Zealand’s abused children are under five years old, and more girls are abused than boys. In 2007/8 there were 90,000 cases of child abuse notified (reported by anyone to authorities), and a fifth of these led to confirmed cases of abuse, mostly emotional abuse and neglect cases.

Between 1991 and 2000, 91 children died of abuse, most from physical violence. Many victims became widely known, for example Nia Glassie, who died following repeated abuse in 2007.

State action

In the 19th century police and the courts did not want to interfere in family life. If children were badly abused they were sometimes taken from their homes and put in an institution.

From the 1920s it was thought that children should remain in their homes, and parents should be educated to prevent abuse from happening. From the 1970s police, lawyers and medical professionals formed teams to advise social workers about abuse. In 1999 Child, Youth and Family (CYF) was created to look after child welfare.

Community action

At first church organisations and women’s groups helped abused children. Plunket nurses who visited homes could report child abuse. From the 1970s women campaigned to end violence in the home.

From 1989 community groups, iwi (tribes) and Pacific Island groups had contracts with the government to provide care for children and to assist families.

Programmes called ‘Alternatives to smacking’ and ‘Never shake a baby’ educated parents and caregivers.

Causes of child abuse

Family members are the most likely to abuse children, and violence and abuse is often passed down in families. If people are poor or live in crowded conditions there is a higher chance of abuse.


In 2010 it was estimated that family violence, including child abuse, cost $1.2 billion each year, spent on education campaigns, investigations, trials, prison terms and assistance for victims.

Speaking out

Children often do not speak out about abuse because they fear they may not be believed or their family might be broken up. From the 1970s there were phone help-lines where victims could ask for help.

How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Dalley, 'Child abuse', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 March 2018)

Story by Bronwyn Dalley, published 5 May 2011