Story: Child abuse

Page 3. State action on child abuse

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Government agencies, and professionals such as social workers, health workers, teachers and police, play important roles when family networks break down and children are put at risk. However, the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care has found that actions of the state have also put children at risk. Its employees have been perpetrators of abuse or have ignored those who have tried to report issues. 

Early responses

In the 19th century, police and courts were reluctant to interfere with the head of the household’s power to discipline children. Physical abuse had to be severe or cruel for court proceedings to occur.

It was more common to remove neglected or abused children from the family than to prosecute parents. From 1867, courts could commit such children to state residential (‘industrial’) schools. These institutions could themselves be abusive places, and various inquiries uncovered excessive punishment and sexual abuse of residents.

Growing awareness of abused children resulted in laws which gave the state new powers to intervene. The Children’s Protection Act 1890 allowed police to intervene when children were at risk. In the 1880s, public alarm had grown about ‘baby farms’ – private homes in which very young children were cared for away from their mothers. From the 1890s such homes had to be licensed and inspected by police, and later by female infant life protection officers.

Working with families

From the 1920s, greater attempts were made to keep children in their families. Neglected and abused children could still be removed, but the emphasis was on preventing problems from becoming more serious. Parental education was seen as the way to combat abuse or neglect, but dealing with child abuse was a delicate process. Child welfare officers (as they were called from 1925) knew children could suffer further abuse if they tried to improve the situation.

Overseas research into ‘battered baby syndrome’ helped bring child abuse to the fore from the 1960s. Government welfare researchers began to collect information on reported cases in 1962. They called on the medical profession to be more active in reporting suspicious injuries to welfare agencies or the police. By the late 1960s, the state was considering making it mandatory for medical professionals to report suspected cases of abuse.

Multi-disciplinary approaches

From the 1970s multidisciplinary child protection teams combined the skills of police, lawyers and medical professionals to give advice to social workers. This co-ordinated approach became the dominant method of handling abuse cases from the 1980s, in theory if not always in practice. More specialist teams dealt with very sensitive matters, such as sexual abuse, or working appropriately with Māori and Pacific Island children. Guidelines for handling cases, and training for social workers, also began in the 1980s in an effort to improve responses to abuse, and inter-agency protocols for dealing with abuse came into force in the mid-1990s.

Although collating accurate abuse statistics is very difficult, information given to the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care suggests that the abuse of children in the care of the state peaked in the 1970s, probably because so many children were taken from their families into foster and state facilities in this decade. 

Operation Hope

In 2009, police in Wairarapa discovered a backlog of child abuse cases which had gone uninvestigated. ‘Operation Hope’ was set up to deal with these cases. As a result, police formed a dedicated unit of detectives and interviewers to work with social workers looking into allegations of serious child abuse in the wider Wellington region.

Importance of family

In the 1980s, the focus was on keeping children in their families. This approach was enshrined in the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989.

The act asserted the primacy of families and whānau, and introduced family-based decision making (family group conferences) for children in need of care and protection. It required more active community involvement in responding to child abuse, and greater attention to families’ cultural background. Social workers notified of cases had to consult care and protection resource panels before taking action. Panel members included members of welfare organisations and Māori and Pacific Island communities, as well as other welfare professionals.

High caseloads meant that social workers did not always proceed as required. Balancing the needs of children and of families has not been easy. In 2004, the Care of Children Act reinforced the need to ensure the safety of at-risk children.

Child, Youth and Family to Oranga Tamariki

Child, Youth and Family (CYF) became New Zealand’s statutory child-welfare agency in 1999. CYF was replaced by the Ministry for Vulnerable Children (Oranga Tamariki) in April 2017 after an expert group produced a critical review of CYF services in December 2015. The agency was renamed Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children on 31 October 2017. Oranga Tamariki social workers handle notifications about suspected child abuse and neglect. They assist families having difficulties caring for their children, and make alternative care arrangements if children are not safe in the home environment.

A report into the death of a child in 2021 at the hands of his caregiver found that in the past three decades there had been more than 30 investigations into specific deaths and reports about child abuse written by corners, Children’s Commissioners (independent advocates for children and young people) and others. These reports have consistently called for better co-operation between agencies. Many have also called for mandatory reporting by professionals working with children if they see significant risk of harm. At the end of that year, the first ever national strategy to eliminate family violence was announced by the government. The strategy, Te Aorerekura, was designed to bring together the work of iwi, hapu and other community groups, specialists in the area and government departments.

Added protections

In light of New Zealand’s extremely high rates of child abuse, new legislation was passed to provide children added protection. The Crimes Act was amended in 2007 to remove the defence of ‘reasonable force’ for parents. This made it illegal for parents to use force against their children to discipline them. The private member's bill, introduced by Green MP Sue Bradford, was controversial but was eventually passed by a large majority after some revisions were made.

The Vulnerable Children’s Act 2014 (later renamed the Children’s Act) introduced new requirements for people working with children and young people in schools and other environments to pass a safety check, which includes obtaining information from police about past convictions for a range of sexual and violent offences.

How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Dalley, 'Child abuse - State action on child abuse', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

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