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Page URL: https://practice.orangatamariki.govt.nz/practice-approach/practice-standards/ensure-safety-and-wellbeing/definitions-of-abuse-neglect-and-harm/physical-abuse/
Printed: 18/07/2024
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Last updated: 22/07/2021

Physical abuse

Physical abuse involves situations where a tamaiti has an injury or was at serious risk of injury. The harm could be deliberate or unintentionally result from a deliberate action.

Upcoming changes for this content

This content will be strengthened so it more completely reflects our commitment to practice framed by te Tiriti o Waitangi, based on a mana-enhancing paradigm for practice, and drawing from ​Te Ao Māori principles of oranga to support mana tamaiti, whakapapa and whanaungatanga. We each need to consider how we can apply these principles to our practice when reading this content. The following resources provide support:
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What it is

Physical abuse can be any act that may result in physical harm to a tamaiti.

Think about:

  • how the injury or harm happened (accidental, deliberate) — physical abuse may include bruising, cutting, hitting, beating, biting, burning, causing abrasions, strangulation, suffocation, drowning, poisoning, and fabricated or induced illness, shaking (of an infant), and use of an object as a weapon (such as a broom, belt or bat)
  • the nature of the injury — injuries may include a bone fracture, burns or scalds, concussion or loss of consciousness, any injury that needs medical attention (such as stitches), bruises, cuts, welts and abrasions, and abdominal or internal injuries
  • the circumstances (avoidable, unintentional) — such as the vulnerability of te tamaiti, the number of people involved in the abuse, historical patterns of harm, the degree of violence used, and the perpetrator's history and background.

Physical abuse can be a single injury or action. It can also happen in combination with other circumstances.

Physical abuse may be deliberately inflicted or the unintentional result of the adult's behaviour (eg shaking of an infant).

Reports of concerns about smacking

The Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 (formerly the Crimes (Abolition of Force as a Justification for Child Discipline) Amendment Bill) is an amendment to New Zealand's Crimes Act 1961, which removed the legal defence of 'reasonable force' for parents prosecuted for assault on their children.

This legislation became known as the 'anti-smacking bill'.

Adults caring for tamariki or rangatahi can use reasonable ‘force’ in specific circumstances such as to keep tamariki or rangatahi safe, to stop them from offending, or to stop offensive or disruptive behaviour – for example, to stop te tamaiti from running out onto the street, touching a hot stove, or hurting themselves or other tamariki or rangatahi, or to carry a protesting tamaiti out of a supermarket.

However, 'force' is not justified for the purpose of discipline of tamariki or rangatahi.

Parental control – section 59 of Crimes Act 1961

If we receive a report of concern involving the use physical force, including smacking, professional judgement is required to consider the impact on te tamaiti involved. We need to consider if the use of 'force' meets the threshold of care and protection concerns of harm.

Use the decision response tool to guide decision-making in intake. The Child Protection Protocol (CPP) also gives definitions to help with decision-making.

Consult with Police if required.

Overview of the intake decision response tool

Child Protection Protocol (CPP)

During an assessment it is important to establish the context that the smacking happened in, including the intent. For example, in some cultures, families view smacking or physical discipline as a parental duty and being in the best interests of the child or young person for them to learn expected behaviour. We need to seek cultural support and advice to help us engage the family to understand their parenting practices in the context of their cultural values and worldview.

It is never acceptable for caregivers to hit or smack tamariki or rangatahi in the custody of the chief executive. These situations always need to be reported, and a balanced approach taken. Our assessment should consider the interests and welfare of te tamaiti or rangatahi and the circumstances of the hitting or smacking. Consider how parents and caregivers can learn new ways of managing behavioural distress. The caregiver training offers tips and tricks for caregivers to manage their emotions and respond to tamariki in ways that are safe for everyone. Think about available and culturally appropriate support and education programmes that can help the parents or caregivers learn new ways of managing behaviour.

Policy: Allegations of harm (ill-treatment, abuse, neglect or deprivation) of tamariki in care or custody


When working with caregivers after a report of concern of physical abuse and a completed assessment or investigation, it is important to consider what education and supports the caregiver may require to ensure abuse does not reoccur and to ensure the ongoing safety and oranga (wellbeing) of te tamaiti or rangatahi. We also need to consider the best interests and welfare of te tamaiti or rangatahi including in the context of whakapapa.

If the use of smacking and physical discipline has been a regular part of whānau or family life, when assessing a whānau or family member as a caregiver, we need to understand what supports are required for the whānau or family to learn new techniques to manage behavioural distress. Work with the Caregiver Recruitment and Support social worker to ensure the caregiver support plan addresses the concerns.

If we do not believe te tamaiti or rangatahi can be made safe in the whānau or family placement, we consult with our kairaranga ā-whānau or other cultural advisors and hold a hui ā-whānau.

Possible signs

These signs are clues that alert us that abuse may have happened and that a tamaiti may need help or protection. However, they are not conclusive evidence of abuse and there may be instances of abuse where there are no obvious signs. 

Signs can be found on their own or in various combinations or clusters.

Physical signs

Te tamaiti has unexplained or inconsistently explained:

  • bruises, welts, cuts and abrasions — particularly look out for injuries in areas such as the face, ears, arms, hands, stomach, back, buttocks, genitalia, back of the legs or feet
  • fractures or dislocations — particularly look out for a fracture to the head or face, or a hip or shoulder dislocation, and for multiple fractures at different stages of healing
  • burns — burns are concerning anywhere on the body, especially if they are in the shape of an object like a stove ring or iron, or might have been caused by a cigarette or rope.

Consider the location of any injuries and the age of te tamaiti. Young babies do not move around enough to accidentally hurt themselves, but older tamariki are active and can have more accidental injuries, usually on bony parts of the body like the forehead, knees or shins.

Also look out for the regularity of these injuries — check if there's a pattern.

Remember that Mongolian spots can look like bruises but they are a dark blue birthmark often found on children with darker skin. They are present on the skin at birth and are usually on the lower back or the bottom.

Behavioural signs

Te tamaiti:

  • gives inconsistent or vague explanations regarding injuries
  • is wary of adults or a particular person
  • has a vacant stare or frozen watchfulness
  • cringes or flinches if touched unexpectedly
  • may be extremely compliant and eager to please
  • dresses inappropriately to hide bruising or injuries
  • runs away from home or is afraid to go home
  • may regress (for example, bedwetting)
  • may indicate general sadness
  • could have vision or hearing delay
  • is violent to other tamariki or animals.

It may help to check the expected age and developmental stages for te tamaiti. If their behaviour is inconsistent with their range, you should ask more questions.

Ages and developmental stages