Story: Child abuse

Page 5. Understanding child abuse

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Causes of abuse

Explanations of the causes of child abuse have changed over time.

Heredity (genetics), the effects of alcohol and ‘feeble mindedness’ were all suggested as causes of abuse in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Psychological causes for social problems were first identified around the 1920s and attention turned to the place of the child in the family. Traumatic family relationships or a lack of affection could lead to child abuse or neglect.

Research into battered children from the 1960s identified social causes, such as social and economic inequalities and overcrowded homes. Single parenthood, seen as a social problem in itself, was sometimes given as another cause.

The high level of abuse of Māori children was noted but largely unexplained in the 1960s. The Māori ‘renaissance’ of the 1980s led to culturally based explanations for abuse, including racism and the effects of colonisation.

Contemporary explanations

In the early 21st century, child abuse is firmly set in the context of family violence, partly as a result of links made between women’s and children’s rights and domestic violence. The home or family is recognised as the main place abuse occurs, and family members are seen as the major perpetrators of violence towards children. Like other forms of family violence, child abuse can be a learned – and tolerated – behaviour that is passed from one generation to the next.

Cycle of violence

One woman described the maltreatment meted out to her as a child and her abuse of her own child. She was ill-equipped to deal with the demands of parenthood: ‘[the baby] wouldn’t have her bottle when she was supposed to – she just wanted everything her own way and would scream if she couldn’t have it. So I started belting the baby, and Mum started getting worried. I told her I’d kill the baby one day if something wasn’t done.’1

Links between family violence and child abuse were made more explicit in government policy from the 2000s through the implementation of family violence prevention strategies and the introduction of pan-agency family safety teams. These links enabled welfare agencies, police and health professionals to work together more closely. Preventive programmes emphasise working with families to end cycles of violence and abuse.


The neglect of children’s basic needs has been studied less than child abuse but can be just as damaging to a child’s life and future. A study in 2010 found that neglect is often under-reported. It is likely that alcohol and drug abuse amongst parents is a contributing factor, but so is parents’ own experience of maltreatment as children. Professionals in the sector caution that while poverty is another important cause of neglect, middle-class children also suffer from neglect.

The cost

Abuse has immeasurable long-term social, health, emotional and behavioural effects on children and their families. There is an economic as well as human cost, including health, welfare and corrections services, and the indirect cost of lost productivity.

Speaking out

Those at the heart of child abuse — the children themselves — have often been silent. Children have found it hard to report their abuse, and not only because people may not believe them; their family may be split up.

Growing awareness of child abuse led some people to speak of a ‘child abuse industry’ in which parents were unjustly accused of abusing their children. After claims of false allegations of abuse, an independent inquiry into one case in 1989 found that social workers had acted in ways not justified by the evidence. A local version of the English group Parents Against Injustice (PAIN) was formed in the 1980s. In 1989 it claimed to have 130 members and unsuccessfully called for a ministerial inquiry into New Zealand’s ‘sexual abuse industry’.

From the 1970s, telephone helplines gave victims another way to ask for help. Teachers, doctors and others alert to the signs of abuse could act on behalf of children, calling their situation to the attention of police or social workers.

Since the 1990s, more survivors of abuse have spoken out. Some have recounted their experiences in private and state residential institutions, and filed cases against the Crown or other agencies. Others have talked about their experiences at the hands of foster parents or others charged with their care such as sport coaches and teachers. Between 2008 and 2015, the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service was available to listen to the experiences of and provide assistance to people with concerns about abuse or neglect while in state care.

From the 1980s, more resources were put into helping children cope with abuse. This extended to adult survivors of abuse, especially sexual abuse. Some government compensation was available for sexual abuse survivors, including funding for therapy and lump-sum payments.

Oranga Tamariki – a ministry for children 

Between 1999 and 2017, Child, Youth and Family (Services) was the government agency with responsibility for preventing and responding to child abuse. In the early 21st century it received increasing criticism following high-profile child deaths.

An expert group was established by the Ministry for Social Development in 2015 to review government- and community-based actions in relation to vulnerable children. Its report in December 2015 argued for the better integration of a range of child services and for the establishment of a new agency to respond to the needs of children at risk.

A Ministry for Vulnerable Children (Oranga Tamariki) was created in April 2017. Its name was changed to Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children on 31 October 2017 after criticism of the term ‘vulnerable children’.

Oranga Tamariki is trying to find new ways to collaborate with other organisations and individuals, including young people and caregivers. It remains the key government agency with responsibility to intervene when child abuse is suspected. 

Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry   

The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry began in 2018 as an investigation of the abuse of children who had been in state care. Its remit was soon widened to include faith-based (religious) institutions. Former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand was the first chair of the inquiry. Its focus was the period from the 1950s to 2000. 

The commission was asked to investigate how and why children and young people ended up in care, as well as what abuse and neglect took place. It also looked into what changes could be made to prevent and respond to abuse in the future. It has considered how state- and faith-based institutions should provide redress and rehabilitation to survivors. 

An important part of the work of the inquiry was the hearing of statements from survivors of abuse and neglect. By August 2023 the commission had held 130 days of hearings and heard nearly 3,000 statements from survivors.

In 2019 the government set up a unit to manage the government’s response to the royal commission, and to work with and for survivors.

  1. Sue Kedgley and Sharyn Cederman, eds, Sexist society. Wellington: Alister Taylor, 1972, p. 56. Back
How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Dalley, 'Child abuse - Understanding child abuse', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

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