Reporting child abuse
When is a child in need of care and protection?
A child or young person is in need of care or protection if the child or young person is being, or is likely to be:
- harmed (whether physically, emotionally or sexually)
- seriously deprived.
A child or young person is also in need of care or protection if:
- the child or young person’s development, or their physical, mental, or emotional well-being, is being, or is likely to be, seriously neglected or impaired and the neglect or impairment could be avoided
- in the case of a child under 14 (including an unborn child), one of their parents has in the past had a child removed from them because of abuse or serious neglect or has been convicted of killing a child in their care, and that parent hasn’t been approved to have custody and care of further children by the Family Court (this ground was added in July 2016 – see in this chapter, “Care and protection declarations and orders by the Family Court / Parents with new children who’ve had children removed in the past”)
- there are serious differences between the child or young person and their parents or guardians to such an extent that the physical, mental, or emotional well-being of the child or young person is being seriously impaired
- the child or young person is behaving in a way likely to cause harm (physical, mental or emotional) to themselves or to others
- the parents or guardians are unable or unwilling to control the child or young person
- in the case of a child under 14, the child has been committing criminal offences and this is causing serious concern for their well-being
- the parents or guardians are unable or unwilling to care for the child or young person
- the parents or guardians have abandoned the child or young person
- there are serious differences between two or more of the parents or guardians that may seriously impair the physical, mental or emotional well-being of the child or young person
- the child or young person is unable to build a significant psychological bond with their caregiver because of the number of times they have been placed in someone’s care for the purposes of separation from their parents or guardians.
What about smacking children?
The law recognises that there may be some legitimate reasons why a parent may use force against a child (for example, when intervening to protect the child from harm) but makes it clear that it is not acceptable to use force to correct or discipline a child (see the chapter “Domestic violence and elder abuse”).
If someone reports smacking or hitting to Oranga Tamariki / Ministry for Children (which has replaced Child, Youth and Family), social workers will consider it in the same way as any other allegation of assault or violence against a child.
The working definition of “physical abuse” used by New Zealand government agencies is any act or acts that cause injury to a child or young person, including, but not limited to: bruises and welts; cuts and abrasions; fractures and sprains; head injuries; injuries to abdominal or internal organs; strangulation or suffocation; poisoning; and burns or scalds.
When can a person report suspected child abuse?
Any person can report suspected child abuse at any time if they believe that a child or young person has been, or is likely to be:
- harmed (whether physically, emotionally, or sexually)
- neglected, or
Who can suspected child abuse be reported to?
Child abuse can be reported to the police or to a social worker from Oranga Tamariki.
Does a person who suspects child abuse have to report it?
If it’s serious, yes. Anyone who is over 18 and who is aware of child abuse occurring in a household they live in, or are a member of, must take reasonable steps to protect that child from death, serious harm or sexual assault. Practically, this means they must report child abuse that is serious. The law also applies to staff members of hospitals, institutions or residences where a child is living. Further, guardians have a duty to protect children in their care from injury.
The maximum penalty for not taking reasonable steps to protect a child from death, serious harm or sexual assault is 10 years in prison.
People are not legally required to report less serious suspected child abuse.
What happens after child abuse is reported?
Once a report of child abuse has been made, the matter must be investigated (see “Investigating child abuse” in this chapter).
Note: Many groups of professionals, such as teachers or doctors, have protocols and requirements about how to identify child abuse and report it.
Will the family find out who reported the suspected child abuse?
The family should not be told who made the report, but in some cases, they may be able to guess who it was. If the matter is taken to court (this does not happen often), the person who made the report may be called as a witness.
What happens if the person who reports suspected child abuse has got it wrong?
A person who reports abuse is protected from civil, criminal or disciplinary proceedings, unless they knew that the information they gave was not true.