The smacking issue

What's Important To Us

Most children in New Zealand are raised in a loving and caring environment that includes discipline and correction of unacceptable behaviour. Many parents may occasionally lightly smack their children as a means of discipline. How we work with families/whānau in this context requires us to exercise good professional judgement and social work common sense while also being mindful of safety.

This key information provides guidance to assist social workers to assess and respond to reports of concern where smacking is noted.

It is important to note here that Oranga Tamariki has a no hitting or smacking policy for caregivers who undertake care for children in the custody of the chief executive.

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What does the law say?

In 2007 the law in New Zealand about the use of physical force for the purposes of correction was amended. Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961 was substituted with the following provisions:

“Every parent of a child and every person in the place of a parent of the child is justified in using force if the force used is reasonable in the circumstances and is for the purpose of:

  • preventing or minimising harm to the child or another person
  • preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in conduct that amounts to a criminal offence
  • preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in offensive or disruptive behaviour
  • performing the normal daily tasks that are incidental to good care and parenting”.

Substituted section 59 further clarifies that neither it nor any rule of common law justifies the use of force for the purpose of correction. This means, for example, that a parent can physically restrain a child from hurting themselves, or from hurting others. They can pull them away from a dangerous road, or they can take an unwilling child to time out. The parent can, therefore, use reasonable force to control behaviour in certain circumstances.

Whether or not the use of physical force on a child constitutes a crime is a matter for the New Zealand Police. They must always use their professional judgment in deciding what matters will proceed to prosecution, as they must do in all matters relating to crime.

The Act which substituted section 59 also made provision for the police to “have discretion not to prosecute complaints against a parent of a child or person in the place of a parent of a child in relation to an offence involving the use of force against a child, where the offence is considered to be so inconsequential that there is no public interest in proceeding with a prosecution". This strengthens further the discretion the police already had when deciding what matters may proceed to prosecution.

Does Oranga Tamariki investigate "smacking"?

The change to the Crimes Act did not change what constitutes physical abuse within the context of child protection. Our working definition of physical abuse remains:

“an act, or acts that result in inflicted injury to a child or young person. It may include, but is not restricted to, bruises and welts, cuts and abrasions, fractures or sprains, head, abdominal or internal organ injuries, strangulation or suffocation, poisoning, burns or scalds” (Child, Youth and Family, 2001).

It also did not change the definition of when a child or young person is in need of care or protection in section 14 of the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989. Section 14(1)(a) requires actual or likely harm, abuse, or ill-treatment. If a report of concern relating to smacking or hitting is referred to Oranga Tamariki, social workers need to consider it in the same way as they would any other allegation of assault or violence against a child. Social workers should continue to apply the same threshold level of harm as we do when considering whether a child is in need of care and protection

Given the common understanding of “smacking” involves an open palm, sharp slap, leaving no enduring mark or injury to the child, it is most unlikely to constitute physical abuse. Oranga Tamariki are concerned primarily with the abuse and neglect of children, not incidents of light smacking. A report to Oranga Tamariki of a light smack of a child will not, in the absence of any other aggravating circumstances, constitute grounds for further action.

How do we deal with a report of concern for smacking?

If the Contact Centre or a site receives a report of concern where the primary or sole concern for the child is smacking or hitting, they need to use common sense and professional judgement to assess the information before deciding how to respond. Sometimes it won’t be clear from the initial information whether ‘smacking’ is occurring or whether it is something more concerning. The social worker will therefore need to canvass issues such as the age of the child, severity of the smacking, how the child is being hit, where on their body, whether there are any injuries, whether any weapons are used, and the frequency of the hitting. If the information gathered raises no concerns in terms of these areas, it is likely that the action is smacking and there is no role for Oranga Tamariki.

If the information gathered indicates that a child is being harmed, it is appropriate for us to make further enquiries to make sure that the child is safe. As noted above, if the report alleges light smacking only, there is unlikely to be any basis for further action.

Concerns relating to smacking may more appropriately be dealt with by the New Zealand Police. Child Youth and Family become involved when matters are serious and there are concerns that a child is being abused.

Following up concerns that look serious at first but prove not to be

There will be times when we receive a report of concern where the small amount of presenting information suggests that a child might be being seriously hurt. After looking into this information further and talking it over with the family, it may become apparent that the report of concern information is incorrect and that the parents are either lightly smacking the child or in fact using no physical discipline at all. Social workers in this situation need to use their common sense and professional judgement.

If the assessment of the situation indicates that the child is not at risk of abuse, then it is appropriate to take no further action, but don’t forget that parenting is a hard job and most people at some time could use support. So, if it’s appropriate, ask the family/whānau if they would like you to connect them to services within the community that could support them in their parenting.

How about when smacking is part of other concerns for a child?

While it is not appropriate for us to become involved in situations of light smacking, in some families where smacking occurs there may be other concerns for the child’s care or safety. The report of concern may provide indications of more serious concerns such as parental drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, neglect or intimate partner violence impacting on a child’s care and safety. This is where good assessment is important and we need to use our professional judgement about whether we, or some other service, need to work with the family. Similarly, if we know that children in the family/whānau have been at risk in the past and smacking is reported as a concern, we need to use our professional judgement to decide whether we need to be involved.

How should I deal with smacking in the context of other issues?

Most of the time these situations will be assessed via a child and family assessment. This means the social worker undertakes an assessment of the family/whānau’s strengths and needs and methods of discipline will be considered as part of this fuller assessment.

Sometimes parents will be smacking children to try and manage poor behaviour. We should encourage them to think about other child management techniques and provide them with this information or link them to services or programmes that can assist them. They might need support to enrol in and attend a parenting programme to provide them with alternatives to smacking. Some parents also need help to understand the developmental stages of their children and what behaviour management techniques are appropriate and successful at different ages.

For families/whānau where stress or tiredness is contributing to their smacking it may be helpful to discuss with them how they can access support. A whānau hui can draw together wider family support to ease some of the stressors parents may be experiencing; Strengthening Families can organise education, health and other government agencies to support a family who is struggling with access to, or relationship with government agencies. Sometimes a partnered response is the right pathway to ensure community support for a family/whānau who need some help for a period of time.

Strengthening Families Process

When a report of concern involves smacking and the family are new citizens, we need to be aware that some immigrant families may come from a country with different laws and cultural norms around child discipline. Families new to New Zealand may need to be supported by their own cultural or community leaders to understand and observe New Zealand cultural practices and law relating to the disciplining of their children.

In summary, the role of Oranga Tamariki is to respond to situations of child abuse and neglect. Occasional light smacking, unless it’s part of more serious concerns, does not require a response from us. So use your professional judgement in these situations and if in doubt, talk it over with your supervisor or practice leader.

References

Child, Youth and Family (2001). Recognition of Child Abuse and Neglect.