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Page URL: https://practice.orangatamariki.govt.nz/practice-standards/ensure-safety-and-wellbeing/serious-harm/
Printed: 18/08/2019
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Last updated: 01/07/2019

Serious harm

Harm can have a varying degree of impact on te tamaiti. Sometimes a single traumatic event, for example a violent sexual or physical assault, can have a significant impact on te tamaiti and may constitute serious harm.

What constitutes serious harm?

Harm can have a varying degree of impact on te tamaiti.

Sometimes a single traumatic event, for example a violent sexual or physical assault, can have a significant impact on te tamaiti and may constitute serious harm.  However, in many cases, a one-off incident, unless extremely severe and traumatic, is unlikely to have a long-lasting and serious impact on te tamaiti. Often serious harm is the cumulative impact of events or circumstances, both acute and long-standing, which interrupt, change or damage the physical and/or psychological development of te tamaiti.

“Is likely to” be harmed means:

  • the harm has not happened yet, but  there are concerns regarding the likelihood of events or circumstances (an incident, incidents or actions or inactions) which may result in serious harm in the future, or
  • there is a concern that serious harm has already occurred and may reoccur.

Not all harm is deliberate. It can result from an act of omission, a failure to do something, or can be the result of circumstances outside the control of the parent/caregiver, for example prolonged homelessness or an assault by a third party perpetrator.  

A number of factors will influence how strongly te tamaiti will be impacted by an event/incident(s). It is important to understand the individual tamaiti to understand how they are impacted by an event/incident or series of incidents.

In some cases it is easy to determine that te tamaiti has suffered serious harm, for example when a tamaiti has been sexually abused or physically attacked. There is likely to be clear first hand evidence of harm to te tamaiti. The more difficult cases involve issues of neglect, exposure to family violence and emotional abuse where it is hard to find one particular incident that makes people worried, rather it is the long-term impact on te tamaiti of the ongoing exposure to the same kind of harm that is concerning. 

When considering whether te tamaiti has suffered, is suffering or is likely to suffer serious harm, it is important to consider the impact of the harm on the physical, psychological, emotional and cultural wellbeing of te tamaiti. Consider the following:

  • The nature and severity of the incident or incidents and their impact on te tamaiti. This includes the actual, or potential impact on the health, development or wellbeing of te tamaiti taking into account their age and stage of development
  • Extent, duration and frequency of the harm- how long the abuse or neglect has gone on and how severe it is. Remember, if abuse has occurred in the past, the impact of further abuse on te tamaiti can be more significant.
  • Whether more than one type of harm is/has occurred; the co-existence of several types of harm can have a cumulative impact on te tamaiti.
  • The age and vulnerability of te tamaiti, including whether there is any medical condition, communication impairment or disability that may affect the development of te tamaiti, make them more vulnerable to harm or influence the level and type of care provided within the family/whānau
  • The extent to which te tamaiti is likely to suffer repeated harm; whether it is likely that it will recur, meaning the impacts on te tamaiti are not isolated incidents and are more than just temporary.
  • The background of the alleged incident- the extent of premeditation, the presence of degree of threat or coercion.
  • What does this event/harm mean within the context of the individual tamaiti- Every tamaiti is different, and they will experience an event or incident individually; seek to understand the vulnerabilities and resilience of te tamaiti to help assess what impact an event has had on them.
  • The view and reaction of te tamaiti- the reactions, perceptions, wishes and feelings of te tamaiti should be ascertained and their views taken into account as far as is practicable,  safe and in their best interests. This includes consideration to any behaviour or behavioural changes that may indicate te tamaiti is seriously impacted by their experience of or exposure to the harm (for example changes in eating, sleeping, toileting, or the presence of self-harm/suicide risk).
  • The role (in the abuse/harm) of the significant adults in the life of te tamaiti – is the abuse/harm perpetrated by someone in a key caregiving role, from whom te tamaiti should have expected protection and safety.

The perceived seriousness of an event does not necessarily equate to the impact of the harm on te tamaiti. It is complex, there is a number of features which require consideration. Take time to explore your thinking with others, discuss in supervision and ensure you involve te tamaiti and their whānau in seeking to understand the impact on te tamaiti.

Forming a belief: determining when a child or young person is in need of care or protection

Finding that a tamaiti may have experienced serious harm, does not automatically mean that they are in need of care or protection. This decision must be based on whether serious harm is currently occurring or is likely to occur and therefore that te tamaiti is in need for care and protection. In making this decision, it is necessary to consider the harm/maltreatment alongside the strengths of the family/whānau and the views te tamaiti has about their own safety and wellbeing. Forming a belief that te tamaiti is in need of care or protection provides the legislative grounds for a care and protection family group conference and if necessary further state intervention in the life of the family/whānau.

State intervention is a significant intrusion in the life of a te tamaiti and their family/whānau and as such should be reserved for situations where safety and wellbeing cannot be achieved with alternative interventions.

  • Use the Tuituia assessment framework to guide your thinking and assessment of the needs, strengths and risks that exist for te tamaiti and within the family/whānau.

Determining whether te tamaiti is in need of care or protection it is important to consider:

  • Is the harm/abuse an isolated incident or ongoing and/or likely to reoccur in the future?
  • The level of understanding that the family/whānau has regarding the concerns for te tamaiti and their understanding about what needs to happen in order for te tamaiti to be safe moving forward.
  • The willingness and ability of at least one parent and/or the family/whānau to protect te tamaiti in the future. Do they have the ability to act protectively? Are they committed to taking the necessary steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of te tamaiti?
  • The presence of any factors that would offer protection to te tamaiti- for example protective family/whānau, hapu and iwi or others that may be able to offer support and help. What resources and capabilities does the family/whanau, hapu and iwi have that can support te tamaiti and their parents, mitigate risk and provide for the needs of te tamaiti?
  • Parents or carers capacity to parent, including their history of parenting and ability to maintain safety. How have they responded to any concerns in the past? Are there factors surrounding the parents/caregivers history and/or current circumstances that continue to place te tamaiti at risk? Can these concerns be mitigated sufficiently to ensure the safety and wellbeing of te tamaiti?
  • Who may be able to provide support or assistance and/or bolster the ability of the family/whānau to provide safe care moving forward? What role can family/whānau, hapu and iwi play? What agencies are present in the community that te tamaiti and the family/whānau can work with to meet future needs?
  • What does this event/harm mean within the context of the individual tamaiti? Every tamaiti is different, and they will experience an event or incident individually; seek to understand the vulnerabilities and resilience of te tamaiti to help assess what impact an event has had on them. What level of support and protection does te tamaiti need moving forward and how can this be achieved?
  • The view and reaction of te tamaiti- the reactions, perceptions, wishes and feelings of te tamaiti should be ascertained and their views taken into account as far as is practicable,  safe and in their best interests. This includes consideration to any behaviour or behavioural changes that may indicate te tamaiti is seriously impacted by their experience of or exposure to the harm (for example changes in eating, sleeping, toileting, or the presence of self-harm/suicide risk).
  • The most effective form of intervention to ensure the safety and needs of te tamaiti are met.

In considering whether te tamaiti is in need of care or protection it is important that you also:

  • Act with supervisory oversight and support. Take the opportunity to explore with your supervisor and colleagues the key factors that are influencing your decision. Use the child and family/young person and family consult process to help you think critically about the circumstances for te tamaiti and what may need to happen to ensure their ongoing safety and wellbeing.
  • Talk with the family/whānau and te tamaiti about what you are seeing, your worries and how you are interpreting what you are seeing. Do they see and think the same way, and if not, how do they see things? Seek to understand the perspective of the family/whānau and provide   an opportunity for family/whanau to understand and input into your assessment.
  • Bring the family/whānau together, hold a hui-a-whānau or a family meeting, and provide the family/whānau an opportunity to explore options to resolve the concerns and plan for the future safety and wellbeing of te tamaiti. Do the same for key professionals that have a role with the family/whānau and te tamaiti. Ask the family/whānau who they want involved in this process.
  • Understand the history of the case, and locate the current risks, issues and concerns within that context
  • Communicate and record the rationale for your decision clearly, so that the family/whānau, other professionals and importantly te tamaiti can understand why further action is or is not occurring. If te tamaiti has expressed views regarding what they would like to have happen and this does not occur, it is important that the rationale for this is recorded.