Story: Child abuse

Page 1. Rates of child abuse

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The term ‘child abuse’ includes child neglect as well as acts of physical violence, sexual abuse and emotional abuse. Not all such acts have always been seen as unacceptable. What parents and caregivers may or may not lawfully do to children has changed over time.

It is hard to measure levels of child abuse. Much abuse is hidden, and not all abused children come to the attention of doctors, the police, community groups or social workers. Victims are often too scared to speak up for fear of further violence, and sometimes no one believes them when they do, especially if they are victims of sexual abuse. Definitions of abuse change over time.

19th-century child abuse

In the 19th century, ‘cruelty to children’ was the most common term describing violence towards children. Molesting, defiling or ‘interfering with’ covered the modern term, ‘sexual abuse’. This was very hard to prove, especially if it involved family members, as people were reluctant to think that such acts even occurred. Few abuse cases came to official attention in New Zealand – only 22 (resulting in 11 convictions) went to court in 1899.


Incest became a criminal offence in 1900, but its meaning was narrow. It applied only to some types of blood relationships, and, in common with rape laws, was limited to ‘carnal connection’ (penetrative sexual intercourse). It also made both parties liable to criminal sanction: the victim was treated as if they were as guilty as the perpetrator. Few cases went to court – by 1920, just 35 people had been convicted of incest.

Survey of child abuse, 1967

The term ‘child abuse’ dates from around the middle of the 20th century. The first major national survey of child abuse in New Zealand was undertaken in 1967. It focused on cases of deliberate physical cruelty – not neglect – that had come to the attention of child welfare officers. That year, 419 cases of suspected abuse were reported. Abuse was proven in 255 cases – fewer than three children per 10,000 aged under 16. The government did not see this level of abuse as a problem, but child welfare officers believed the reported number was merely the tip of an iceberg.

Almost half of the abused children were under the age of five, and those most at risk were less than a year old. Girls were more likely than boys to be abused, and a disproportionate number of both suspected and confirmed cases were Māori and Pacific Island children.

Contemporary trends

From the 1970s, greater awareness of abuse brought more suspected cases to official notice. Social workers investigated 2,131 cases in 1987/8 and 6,500 the following year. The number of notifications reported annually has climbed ever since, to more than 10,000 in the early 1990s and almost 20,000 by the end of the decade. There were more than 50,000 notifications in 2004/5 and more than 150,000 in 2014/15. In 2018, the suspected abuse of 79,200 children (around 7% of all those aged under 20) was notified.

Many reports to Oranga Tamariki about suspected child abuse are made by schools and early learning centres. For this reason, even though family violence is thought to have increased during the lockdown periods of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a decline in notifications of suspected abuse, as schools and other services had less contact with children.

Not all reports are about suspected abuse and many need no further action. In the early 21st century, social workers intervened in a smaller proportion of notifications than previously.

The number of children and young people (aged 0–17) for whom there was a substantiated finding of abuse or neglect has decreased over the last decade, from 18,595 in 2013 to 10,426 in 2022. The majority comprised emotional abuse and neglect. Physical and sexual abuse – the forms that receive the most publicity – were a minority of confirmed cases. Even so, they amounted to more than 4,600 confirmed cases in 2022.

The number of cases has changed, but the ‘profile’ of the abused child identified in the 1970s has not. In the early 21st century, Māori children, especially those living in urban areas, were disproportionately represented in suspected and reported cases – in the early 2010s, Māori children were more than half of all confirmed abuse cases. Girls are more likely to be abused than boys, especially as they grow older, and they are notably over-represented in cases of sexual abuse. Disabled and children in state care are also very vulnerable to abuse. Younger children are most at risk, and forming the great majority of children killed through abuse or neglect. Very few children are killed – mostly by people they know, usually close family members.

The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry has since 2018 been investigating the abuse of children in state and church-run institutions in New Zealand. It has found that it is possible that hundreds of thousands of children were abused and neglected while in the care of the state and churches in the second half of the 20th century. The victims included children in foster homes, health camps, psychiatric institutions, boarding schools and church-run orphanages. It is thought that this abuse peaked in the 1970s, when large numbers of children were taken from their families and placed in state care.

How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Dalley, 'Child abuse - Rates of child abuse', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Bronwyn Dalley, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 7 Jan 2024