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Children's Health



Child abuse and neglect is a serious issue. This article looks at the signs of physical and sexual abuse, and explains how you can help to make children safe.

child abuse

What is child abuse?

Child abuse is not just sexual abuse. Children may be abused physically, emotionally, sexually or through neglect. Sometimes they can be abused in more ways than one.

Physical abuse is any physical injury done, non-accidentally, to a child, by a parent or care provider. Physical abuse endangers or impairs the child's physical or emotional health or development. Physical abuse includes shaking a baby.

Emotional abuse includes constant yelling, threatening, scaring the child, belittling them or playing games with their emotions.

Sexual abuse is when children (sometimes even toddlers and babies) are used in a sexual way by someone older. This includes everything from obscene exposure, to touching the genitals in a sexual way, to rape. It doesn't include normal sexual play between children.

Neglect is when children don't have enough food, love or care. Neglected children don't get enough love and affection, they may not have enough to eat, their injuries may be left untreated, their clothes may not be warm enough, they may be dirty and at risk of infection, or they may be left alone.

What does abuse do to children?

Children can be severely damaged by abuse. They are hurt physically, emotionally, mentally and socially. Their self-esteem is damaged, sometimes permanently. The effects of abuse go on for years long after the abuse has stopped. The sooner it can be stopped, the sooner the child can be helped to begin the process of healing.

How to tell if a child is abused?

General signs can tell you if a child or young person is upset about something. Abuse may be one cause. General signs of upset include:

  • Moodiness, irritability, excessive crying
  • Loss of appetite - changes in eating habits
  • Changes in behaviour at school or towards other people
  • Personality changes
  • Withdrawing into themselves
  • Being afraid to go home, running away
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Having unexplained fears - of the dark, of being alone, of specific people (even relatives and friends), or places (bedrooms and toilets)
  • Sleep disturbances - nightmares, fear of going to bed or sleeping alone

Physical signs: bruises, burns, fractures, scalds or grazes

  • These injuries may be accidental - but if a child seems to be hurt often, the injuries are getting more serious, or there's something odd about them, it could be abuse.

Emotional abuse: this isn't as easy to see as other types of abuse. Children may:

  • Tend to believe they are bad and worthless
  • Have problems getting on with others, or be hard to live with
  • "Shut off" or become too good
  • Have difficulty controlling anger

Sexual abuse: often the only sign may be some slight emotional upset. Children may:

  • Complain of pain or irritation in the genital area, or get infections and urinary problems.
  • Start doing things they've grown out of - like crying, wetting, or soiling their pants, or clinging
  • Have inappropriate sexual play
  • Give a coded message or they may say directly that they are being abused.

Neglected children may:

  • Be sickly and fail to thrive
  • Look uncared for, undernourished, constantly dirty or ill
  • Do badly at school through being tired hungry or ill.

Child abuse is everyone's problem

It is more common than you may think.

It happens a lot in New Zealand.

It affects children from every type of home, family, religion, race and culture. In most cases of abuse, the abuser is well known to the child - a family member, close relative or friends of the family.

Should you report abuse?

Ask yourself the question: "Is the child safe?" If you answer "No", report the suspected abuse immediately to the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Service (CYPFS) or the Police.

If you answer "Yes", but still have concerns about the child's well-being or are worried that the child is not being properly cared for, you can still report your concerns to CYPFS and discuss them with a social worker.

If you suspect abuse, but can't decide if you should report it, talk to someone who might know. You could ask a CYPFS social worker for advice, or a nurse or a person you trust. You could speak to the parent directly, and offer help.

People are sometimes reluctant to make a report because they feel it's none of their business, or in case they're wrong, or because they're afraid of what might happen to them afterwards. However, someone reporting suspected abuse cannot get into trouble with the law as long as their report was made in good faith.

Remember: Children cannot defend themselves.

When children are being abused, they are usually too scared to tell anyone. They cannot help themselves. Too often, the people they should be going to for help are the ones who are abusing them.

Child abuse needs to be reported because it's likely to go on until someone gets help - and the people involved may be too ashamed or too distressed to get help for themselves. By reporting abuse, you can help make a child safe.

Are you hurting your child?

Sometimes parents and caregivers get stressed and take it out on their children. If you are worried about hurting your child, contact a parent support group like Parentline or Parenthelp (their numbers are in the phonebook), or talk to someone you trust.

Note: You may think that shaking your baby does no harm, but it can easily cause brain damage or death.

Are you being abused?

If you are being abused, you should tell someone you trust. This could be another family member, a teacher or a social worker.

Who do you tell about abuse?

Child abuse should be reported to any CYPFS social worker or a member of the Police.

Every attempt is made to investigate all reports of abuse. The family won't be told who made the report, but in most cases they can guess who it was. If the matter is taken to Court, you may be called as a witness but very few cases go to Court. If it does, your report would only be a small part of the evidence.

Investigating abuse

Whenever suspected abuse is reported, the matter is investigated by a social worker and/or a police officer.

In cases where there is sexual abuse or serious physical abuse, both CYPFS and the Police will be involved because such abuse is a criminal matter.

When sexual abuse is suspected, the child may need to be interviewed following a special process set down for sexual abuse cases.

As far as is practical or desirable, the person who made the report is entitled to know the outcome of the investigation and if further action is to be taken.

What happens after the investigation?

If no abuse is found

The family and the person making the report are informed and no further action taken.

If there is a minor problem that requires a short-term solution

If the family wants to sort out the problem but needs some support, a family/whanau agreement could be made with CYPFS.

A family meeting may be called to let the family group work out a simple solution to stop the problem becoming more serious.

If the case is more serious or complicated

Such a case will be referred to a Care and Protection Coordinator at CYPFS who will organise a Family Group Conference to sort out how to make the child safe.

In some cases, the matter may go before the Family Court, which will listen to the family and all involved, and make a ruling. It could order counselling, or some kind of support or services for the family. The Court will try to make sure the child is protected and cared for.

As a last resort, the child or young person may be removed from their home to protect them from harm.

If a crime has been committed (sexual abuse or a serious assault)

The Police may decide to prosecute the offender.

Further information

For more information, contact the Youth Justice Coordinator at your local office of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Service. The following pamphlets, available at your local office, may also be of help:

  • Family Group Conferences - Care and Protection
  • Family Court
  • When Your Child is Taken into Care
  • Family/Whanau Agreements
  • Victims of Offences and the Family Group Conference
  • Family Group Conferences - Youth Justice
  • The Law and You - Young People's Rights
  • CYPFS Residences
  • Going to Court
  • About the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Service

Getting help

To report suspected cases of abuse contact your nearest Children, Young Persons and their Families Service.

Auckland 09 912 3820

Wellington 04 912 3100

Christchurch 03 961 6251

See also:

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