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Printed: 16/05/2021
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Last updated: 01/04/2019

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 topic area

This content will be strengthened so it more completely reflects our commitment to Māori-centred practice and a mana-enhancing paradigm for practice in supporting mana tamaiti, whakapapa and whanaungatanga. We each need to consider how we can apply these principles to our practice when reading this guidance. The following resources provide support:
Practice for working effectively with Māori
Staff resource: Supporting Māori-centred practice

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).

Light smacking is not considered physical abuse.

Reports of concerns about smacking

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