Story: Child abuse

Page 5. Understanding child abuse

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Causes of abuse

How people explain the causes of child abuse has 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 family 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 living conditions. Single parenthood, seen as a social problem in itself, was sometimes given as another cause, especially when 1960s research indicated that women were the majority of abusers.

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 2000s 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 the family situation is recognised as the main place abuse occurs and family members as the major perpetrators of violence towards children. In common with 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 parenthood brings: ‘[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 because I just couldn’t keep on top.’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 have 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 cost

Abuse is widely recognised as having immeasurable long-term social, health, emotional and behavioural effects on children and their families. The annual financial cost of child abuse has been put at $2 billion, including health, welfare and corrections services, and the indirect costs 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 their claims; their family may be split up.


Growing awareness of child abuse led some people to speak of a ‘child abuse industry’, with parents 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 before them. 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 phone help lines gave victims one way of asking 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. 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. Some made repeated calls for an official investigation into their treatment in children’s homes. In 2018 the government set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care between 1950 and 1999.

Since the 1980s, more resources have been put into helping children cope with abuse. This has extended to adult survivors of abuse, especially sexual abuse. Some government compensation has been available for sexual abuse survivors, including funding for therapy or lump-sum payments.

Oranga Tamariki – a new Ministry for Children 

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

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 new Ministry for Vulnerable Children (Oranga Tamariki) was created in April 2017. The title of this agency was changed to Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children on 31 October 2017 after criticism of the use of the term ‘vulnerable children’.

Oranga Tamariki is attempting to find new ways of collaborating with other organisations and individuals, including young people and caregivers. It continues to be the key government agency with the responsibility to intervene when child abuse is identified. 

  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 29 March 2023)

Story by Bronwyn Dalley, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 11 Apr 2018