The term ‘child abuse’ includes acts of physical violence, sexual abuse and emotional abuse as well as child neglect. These acts have not always been seen as unacceptable. What parents and caregivers may or may not lawfully do 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 – 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 as ‘guilty’ as the perpetrator. Few cases went to court – by 1920, just 35 people had been convicted.
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 occurred in 1967. It focused on cases of deliberate physical cruelty – not neglect – coming to the attention of child welfare officers. That year, 419 cases of suspected abuse were reported. Of these, abuse was proven in 255 – 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 it was the tip of an iceberg.
Almost half of the abused children were under five and those most at risk were less than a year old. Girls were more likely to be abused, and a disproportionate number of the suspected and confirmed cases were Māori and Pacific Island children.
Greater awareness of abuse brought more suspected cases to official notice from the 1970s. 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 over 10,000 in the early 1990s and almost 20,000 by the end of the decade. There were over 50,000 notifications in 2004/5 and over 150,000 in 2014/15.
Not all reports were about suspected abuse and many needed no further action. In the early 21st century, social workers intervened in a smaller proportion of notifications than previously.
In 2014/15, 11% of all notifications were confirmed as cases of abuse. 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 the late 1990s and early 21st century the rate of substantiated abuse was around seven per 1,000 children aged 16 and under.
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, especially as they grow older, and they are notably over-represented in cases of sexual abuse. Younger children are those most at risk, and form the great majority of children killed through abuse or neglect. Very few children are killed, mostly by people they know, usually close family members.