Recognising abuse and neglect

Image shows an adult and a child, beside a marae. Don't wait, and don't assume someone else is acting.

The majority of children in New Zealand are happy, healthy and loved by their families/whānau and caregivers. However, not all children have the support and protection of a trusted adult. Children have a range of needs that impact on whether they are OK or not.

Sadly, abuse and neglect of children happens a lot in New Zealand. Most people wish there was more they could do to keep kids safe. But often it all seems too hard or they’re afraid of doing the wrong thing.

Whether you’re a family/whānau member, friend, neighbour, teacher, or workmate, there are things you can do to protect children from abuse and neglect. Every action counts.

Make sure you know what abuse and neglect are, and how to recognise the signs.



image shows a cartoon of a mother sheltering a child

What are abuse and neglect?

Abuse is harming a child:
  • physically (eg, giving them hidings)
  • emotionally (eg, yelling or swearing at them, shaming or rejecting them)
  • sexually (eg, involving them in sexual activities).

Neglect is failing to meet a child’s physical and emotional needs – that is, not giving them the care, supervision, love and attention they need to grow up safely and happily (eg, failure to provide food, warm clothing or health care).

Emotional abuse and neglect can cause serious and long-term damage.

When should I be worried?

The early stages of abuse and neglect can be hard to pick up – but over time small things can develop into serious concerns.

Listed below are different situations that can lead to problems, or be early signs of things going wrong. They are only examples – there may be other signs that a child needs help.


Early signs of abuse and neglect

These include problems that need to be checked out:

  • parent has a drug, alcohol or gambling problem
  • parent does not engage with their child or has a difficult relationship with them
  • child doesn’t have enough clothes on and is often cold and hungry
  • child has unexplained or changeable emotions (eg, withdrawn or depressed)
  • parents frequently yell at, swear at or shame a child
  • child seems scared of a particular adult.

Talk to others about your concerns and what you can do to help.


Serious signs of abuse and neglect

Signs that a child’s safety and wellbeing is in danger include:

  • child tells someone they have been abused (eg, have been hit, touched or are frightened)
  • young child home alone or unsupervised near roads or water
  • child threatened with hidings and/or regularly hit by an adult
  • child exposed to violence between adults in the house
  • baby or toddler left unsupervised in cot or car seat for long periods of time
  • baby or child with unexplained or untreated injuries.

You need to take urgent action by contacting Child, Youth and Family on 0508 326 459 or the police on 111. If you are concerned that your safety may be put at risk by reporting and wish to remain anonymous, phone Crimestoppers NZ on 0800 555 111.

If in doubt, trust your instincts – and don’t wait, act. For more warning signs of abuse and neglect visit the Child, Youth and Family website (external link) .


Parents might need extra support

Some things make life extra hard for parents, and sometimes that can lead to problems for the kids:

  • money problems, being out of work
  • overcrowding or housing struggles
  • parents seem over-stressed
  • child with special needs
  • isolated from friends, family/whānau
  • parents fighting and yelling
  • history of depression or other mental illness
  • parents separating.

Early help can stop things getting worse down the track. Keep an eye on the situation and offer help and support where you can.

We know it can be hard to talk to families/whānau about your concerns. Read more about having difficult conversations with parents and how to support them.


What you can do

If you see or hear about a child whose safety and wellbeing is in immediate danger, don’t wait, and don’t assume someone else is acting.
Contact the police on 111 or Child, Youth and Family on 0508 326 459.
Learn more about how to refer to the Vulnerable Children's Hub or a Children's Team.
If you are concerned that your safety may be put at risk by reporting and wish to remain anonymous, phone Crimestoppers NZ on 0800 555 111.

Who else can I talk to?

Image shows a cartoon of a female teacher writing on a whiteboard. Talk to someone else who knows the family well, such as a friend, neighbour, workmate or teacher.

Link the family up with others who can support them – see the useful contacts on this page.

Talk to someone experienced, for a different point of view, or for ideas about how to help.

Call a helpline for free, confidential advice and support:

  • Parent Help – 0800 568 856
  • Child, Youth and Family – 0508 326 459
  • Are You OK – 0800 456 450 (Family Violence Information Line).

If you’re worried that nothing’s happening, let someone in your neighbourhood or community know, like a community worker, health worker, church leader or kaumātua from the local marae.