Story: Child abuse

Page 4. Community responses to child abuse

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Community and iwi groups respond to child abuse by raising awareness and working with abused children and their families. Their role became more important from 1989, when the government entered into formal contracts with community and iwi groups to provide care and assist families. This enabled a wide range of welfare-, Pacific Islands- and iwi-based groups to work directly with their own communities to overcome abuse and neglect.

Church and women’s groups

Religious orders and church groups provided for abused or neglected children, especially before the 1940s. Some, such as the Roman Catholic church, ran homes and industrial schools for these children. Others, such as the YMCA, had a system of ‘Big Brothers’ supervising children and offering advice to parents.

Information emerging from the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care, which began its enquiries in 2018, has found that many people involved in church-run institutions tasked with ensuring the welfare of children instead subjected them to abuse and neglect. Often this criminal offending took many decades to come to light, especially as many church groups actively worked to suppress the stories of survivors coming forward to talk about what had happened to them.

Animals first

New Zealand had a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals before it had one devoted to ending violence towards children and women – the first branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was founded in 1882. The Society for the Protection of Women and Children began in Auckland in 1893 – and for many years also worked to prevent cruelty to animals. Now called Wingspan (formerly Home and Family Counselling), the organisation provides assistance to people who have been abused or have witnessed domestic violence.

Women’s groups were central in raising awareness of abuse and demanding changes to the law to protect children. The Society for the Protection of Women and Children first drew attention to the sexual abuse of children in the 19th century, when it argued for the criminalisation of incest. In the 1970s and 1980s women’s and children’s rights groups campaigned to end violence in the home. They highlighted the sexual abuse of girls and young women, and led research in this area.


The Plunket Society has taken an active role in child abuse prevention since its founding in 1907. Plunket nurses who visited homes sometimes saw abuse and neglect, which they reported to child welfare officers. They also helped monitor the welfare of at-risk children.

Plunket was most active in the child abuse area from the late 1960s. In 1968, ‘battered baby syndrome’ was the topic for Plunket’s annual founder’s day broadcast. Medical director David Geddis, an expert in child abuse, later drew attention to the latest international research on the subject. Plunket nurses formed part of child protection teams and worked with government social workers to assist families.


Plunket took a lead role in the National Advisory Committee on the Prevention of Child Abuse from 1981.This group advocated better handling of abuse cases and more awareness of the problem. Along with other groups, Plunket promoted the mandatory reporting of abuse, as occurred in other countries. The committee drafted a child protection bill in 1983. With the exception of mandatory reporting, much of this text formed the basis of child welfare law reform in 1989.

Child welfare organisation Barnardos has campaigned to end child abuse and neglect since its first New Zealand programme started in 1972. Barnardos’ child advocates work with community groups that deal directly with abused children. UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) works to keep children in New Zealand and overseas safe.

Awareness campaigns

Government agencies, health workers, police and community groups have worked together on many campaigns to raise awareness of abuse. Messages, and their medium of delivery, have changed over time. The 1980s’ ‘Stranger danger’ campaign warning children of risks from strangers was followed by ‘Keeping ourselves safe’ (1988), which recognised that most abuse occurred in the home. Caregivers have been targeted in education and assistance programmes such as ‘Alternatives to smacking’ (1998). The ‘Never shake a baby’ campaign launched in 2009 was a collaborative project by government welfare and health agencies, Plunket and Barnardos.

How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Dalley, 'Child abuse - Community responses to 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