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Child abuse

by Bronwyn Dalley

Public attitudes to child abuse have altered over the years – in the 19th century, a degree of violence towards children was tolerated in some communities. In the 21st century, families and neighbours are encouraged to speak up if they see children being harmed or neglected.

Rates of child abuse

The term ‘child abuse’ includes child neglect as well as acts of physical violence, sexual abuse and emotional abuse. Not all such acts have always been seen as unacceptable. What parents and caregivers may or may not lawfully do to children 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 in New Zealand – 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 treated as if they were as guilty as the perpetrator. Few cases went to court – by 1920, just 35 people had been convicted of incest.

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 was undertaken in 1967. It focused on cases of deliberate physical cruelty – not neglect – that had come to the attention of child welfare officers. That year, 419 cases of suspected abuse were reported. Abuse was proven in 255 cases – 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 the reported number was merely the tip of an iceberg.

Almost half of the abused children were under the age of five, and those most at risk were less than a year old. Girls were more likely than boys to be abused, and a disproportionate number of both suspected and confirmed cases were Māori and Pacific Island children.

Contemporary trends

From the 1970s, greater awareness of abuse brought more suspected cases to official notice. 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 more than 10,000 in the early 1990s and almost 20,000 by the end of the decade. There were more than 50,000 notifications in 2004/5 and more than 150,000 in 2014/15. In 2018, the suspected abuse of 79,200 children (around 7% of all those aged under 20) was notified.

Many reports to Oranga Tamariki about suspected child abuse are made by schools and early learning centres. For this reason, even though family violence is thought to have increased during the lockdown periods of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a decline in notifications of suspected abuse, as schools and other services had less contact with children.

Not all reports are about suspected abuse and many need no further action. In the early 21st century, social workers intervened in a smaller proportion of notifications than previously.

The number of children and young people (aged 0–17) for whom there was a substantiated finding of abuse or neglect has decreased over the last decade, from 18,595 in 2013 to 10,426 in 2022. 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 2022.

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 than boys, especially as they grow older, and they are notably over-represented in cases of sexual abuse. Disabled and children in state care are also very vulnerable to abuse. Younger children are most at risk, and forming the great majority of children killed through abuse or neglect. Very few children are killed – mostly by people they know, usually close family members.

The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry has since 2018 been investigating the abuse of children in state and church-run institutions in New Zealand. It has found that it is possible that hundreds of thousands of children were abused and neglected while in the care of the state and churches in the second half of the 20th century. The victims included children in foster homes, health camps, psychiatric institutions, boarding schools and church-run orphanages. It is thought that this abuse peaked in the 1970s, when large numbers of children were taken from their families and placed in state care.

High-profile cases

Child abuse remains in the public eye through high-profile and tragic cases.

Early case

In the early 1900s there were allegations of abuse of children under the care of the Roman Catholic Church. A Royal Commission into the management of St Mary’s Orphanage in Stoke revealed physical abuse and the use of dark cells to confine children. Separate police inquiries uncovered systematic sexual abuse of boys by one of the Marist Brothers. The case was covered by newspapers throughout the country. The Brothers retreated from the orphanage in 1912 after further cases of sexual abuse.

Baby C

One of the first highly publicised child abuse cases in recent times occurred in 1987. ‘Baby C’, a two-year-old South Auckland girl, died as a result of injuries inflicted by her mother, who had been a state ward. Mother and child had been monitored and visited by health and welfare professionals from the time Baby C was first abused, at around four months old.

A review revealed many problems in how agencies had responded to signs of abuse. This had a major impact on how government social workers would respond to abuse in the future, encouraging a focus on safeguarding the child as the first priority.

Christchurch Civic Crèche

The alleged sexual abuse of children came to public attention from the late 1980s. The most prominent instance concerned the Christchurch Civic Crèche. Complaints alleging abuse of children at the crèche began in 1991. More than 100 children were interviewed during the resulting investigation. Five crèche staff were arrested in 1992, but only Peter Ellis stood trial. He was convicted of sexual violation, indecent assault, and performing (or inducing to perform) indecent acts on seven children.

Some of the more extreme charges had been dropped by the time of the trial, but the case polarised New Zealanders. Controversy raged while Ellis served his prison term, and continued after his release in 2000.

Some people were convinced of Ellis’s guilt, but for others the case raised questions about how allegations of sexual abuse were handled. There was talk of a ‘sexual abuse industry’ that relied too much on children’s evidence, and people came forward with stories of families torn apart by false accusations. In 2022, the Supreme Court quashed Ellis’s convictions posthumously, ruling that a ‘substantial miscarriage of justice’ had occurred.

Lake Alice Hospital

One of the special investigations carried out by the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry, which began in 2018, looked into the abuse and neglect of children in the Child and Adolescent Unit at Lake Alice Hospital, near Marton in Rangitīkei. The commission found that many of the 400–450 young people who went through the unit between 1972 and 1980 had been subject to abuse. It also found that the conduct of the unit’s consultant psychiatrist, Dr Selwyn Leeks, was ‘abusive and unjustified by any standards, even those of the day. For many, Lake Alice was a place of misery, neglect, terror and torment’.1

Dilworth School and Marylands School

Survivors of abuse at many state and church-run schools have come forward to tell their stories, at the royal commission and elsewhere. 

More than 100 survivors of abuse told of the ‘hell on earth’ they experienced at Marylands School in Christchurch, a residential special school for disabled boys, and an associated youth ministry, run by a Catholic order, the Brothers of St John of God, from the 1950s until the 1990s. Many of the boys were subjected to shocking levels of sexual and physical abuse by the brothers. Survivors suffered lifelong damage. The Catholic Church ignored numerous survivors who came forward to make accusations of wrongdoing. After allegations were made, some of the perpetrators were moved to similar schools in Australia, where they continued to offend. Eventually a number of brothers were imprisoned in both countries.

An independent inquiry into sexual and physical abuse at Dilworth School in Auckland reported in 2023. Dilworth School was set up to provide a private education for boys from families in difficult circumstances. The inquiry, headed by former Governor-General Silvia Cartwright, found that teachers and fellow students had abused and bullied students at the school across five decades. There were more than 200 suspected victims, and at least 11 teachers were imprisoned.

Intentional and religious communities

Some intentional communities (often known as communes) and religious communities have allowed abusive adults access to children. One of the most notorious of these was the Auckland commune Centrepoint, set up by the charismatic Bert Potter. Numerous children lived at the commune with their parents from the late 1970s. Allegations that they were subject to abuse and sexualisation from a very young age first surfaced in the early 1980s, but the commune continued until the late 1990s. Potter and others were eventually convicted of multiple crimes.

Men living in the reclusive religious sect of Gloriavale based on the West Coast of the South Island have been convicted of sexual and physical assault. They include founder Neville Cooper (also known as Hopeful Christian), and teachers at its school. The Employment Court found that Gloriavale children had been forced to undertake ‘strenuous, difficult, and sometimes dangerous’ work in the kitchens and in the community’s commercial operations when they were legally required to be at school, and that parents had very little say in the upbringing of their children.2

Child homicides

In the three decades from 1988 to 2018 there were more than 230 child homicides caused by excessive physical abuse towards children under 15. Other deaths were caused by neglect. New Zealand ranked among the worst-performing nations for child mortality due to maltreatment. Almost all these children were under five years of age. Some cases made them household names.

Child pornography and grooming

Pornography is not illegal in New Zealand, though it is subject to the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, and images and film can be banned or restricted.  Pornography involving children and young people is an exception. All such images are automatically deemed objectionable under the act, and any person found distributing or possessing them is committing a crime. The Department of Internal Affairs enforces the legislation and receives complaints.

In the digital age, censorship has become increasingly challenging. Legislation was introduced in 2005 to attempt to control the spread of objectionable digital material. Possession of such material, not just its distribution, was made an offence, and penalties were significantly increased.

The internet offered a huge market for images of sexually abused children. Traders and collectors of such images have been targeted in multinational raids, but the children subjected to the abuse generally go untraced. Internal Affairs investigators  scan online platforms for such material, and work with New Zealand and overseas police. 

The internet has also provided potential abusers with a new way to contact children and initiate a process of feigning intimacy (‘grooming’). Some young people have had intimate photographs and videos of them shared online without their consent, often by trusted adults. Under the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015, people who share such images without consent incur significant penalties.

    • New Zealand. Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions. Beautiful children : inquiry into the Lake Alice Child and Adolescent Unit = te uiui o Te Manga Tamariki Mete Rangatahi ki Lake Alice. [Wellington]: Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry, 2022, p.23. Back
    • Courage v. The Attorney General, New Zealand Employment Court, 2022. Back

State action on child abuse

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.

Community responses to child abuse

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.

Understanding child abuse

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.

    • Sue Kedgley and Sharyn Cederman, eds, Sexist society. Wellington: Alister Taylor, 1972, p. 56. Back

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More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Bronwyn Dalley, 'Child abuse', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Bronwyn Dalley, i tāngia i te 5 o Mei 2011, reviewed & revised 7 o Hānuere 2024