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Recognising and responding to child neglect in New Zealand

This report presents research findings on the neglect of children from birth to five years. The report is in two parts. Part A represents the findings from 22 interviews with workers from the health, social services and education sectors. Part B summarises a literature review of national and international evidence.

The aim of the research was to help inform wider policy work on preventing child maltreatment.

Recognising and responding effectively to child neglect is a priority for the Ministry. There are a number of Government-funded programmes and initiatives in place to help respond to child neglect in our communities. Nevertheless the Ministry is committed to incorporating every new piece of knowledge gained to further strengthen our ability to protect vulnerable children.

Because the sample of key informants for the interview section is small, it is not possible to determine the weight that should be applied across the key findings, for example, it is not clear whether the findings are relevant nationwide, restricted to a specific region or if they apply to a specific service only.

Questions and answers

There is no official definition for child neglect. Why is this? Is this likely to change?

  • Child, Youth and Family does have a very clear definition of child neglect, however it is true that there is no single, cross-agency definition of abuse.
  • In some instances this is understandable – for example the NZ Police need to measure abuse against the possibility of a conviction.
  • What’s important is that other agencies know when to refer cases to Child, Youth and Family. For this reason we work closely with other agencies, cooperatively sharing knowledge and processes, in many cases through interagency protocols, Memorandums of Understanding and joint training.
  • Many interagency protocols with Child, Youth and Family refer to the identification and response to neglect.
  • The Ministry is also working with other agencies to consider possible improvements to the ways in which data on child maltreatment is collected and reported, including the use of shared definitions or a common understanding for child maltreatment.
  • Notably, however, the challenge lies less in describing neglect, but in identifying it consistently when the outward signs of it can be quite subtle.
  • Child, Youth and Family’s 'Recognition of Child Abuse and Neglect' publication informs practice on neglect. It also informs Child, Youth and Family training on the 'Dynamics of Maltreatment' which includes training on neglect.
  • The Law Commission has recommended (in relation to the Crimes (Offences Against the Person) Amendment Bill) that Part 8 of the Crimes Act 1961 be amended to help address violence against children. Among the recommendations is a proposed amendment to make it clear as to what constitutes neglect in statute.

    What information is recorded and known about children who have been neglected in New Zealand?
  • Child, Youth and Family records data on neglect, including the type of neglect, which comes to the attention of Child, Youth and Family. Information on the number of cases where there has been a finding of neglect can be readily extracted, but this is generic and does not distinguish the nature of the neglect. Data on the type of neglect is recorded in the form of case notes and can only be accessed by looking at individual records.
  • Work that is currently underway and being led by the Ministry of Social Development on shared definitions for child maltreatment across agencies, will consider data recording for types of neglect.

    What programmes in New Zealand have a focus on preventing child neglect?
  • The risk factors associated with neglect are well documented. Across government there are a number of programmes and initiatives that address risk factors associated with child neglect, for example, Family Start and Well Child/Tamariki Ora.

    The prevalence of neglect is thought to be higher than what is reported to child protection agencies. Why is this, and what is being done about it?
  • There are significant limitations which make it difficult to monitor the underlying rate (prevalence) of child maltreatment, including neglect. This is partly because many cases of neglect are never admitted or reported, or are reported significantly after the event, for example, when the child that was neglected is an adult.
  • Services such as Well Child/Tamariki Ora that provides a universal service and Family Start that provides services to at risk families, are likely to help prevent potential situations of neglect from occurring by providing support before a situation escalates.

    How are practitioners supported to identify child neglect?
  • Although the signs of neglect are not always as obvious as signs of abuse, there are a number of services and initiatives, particularly in the Health sector, that provide good opportunities for practitioners to engage with families and identify potential situations of neglect. In particular:
    • General Practitioners, Lead Maternity Carers, public health nurses, paediatricians, Well Child/Tamariki Ora nurses, oral health professionals, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and other health professionals may identify neglect in the course of standard health provision.
    • The Violence Intervention Programmes (VIP) in District Health Boards provide Family Violence Intervention Coordinator positions to support policy and system development, including health professional training, evaluation and quality improvement tools and a national Whanau Ora Workforce Development service to support implementation of the Family Violence Intervention Guidelines: Child and Partner Abuse (Ministry of Health 2002)
    • The Well Child/Tamariki Ora needs assessment and care planning process pilot will support Lead Maternity Carer midwives and Well Child/Tamariki Ora nurses to prevent, identify and respond to neglect.
  • Child, Youth and Family has a number of assessment tools that are designed to help identify neglectful parenting (Safety Assessment and Strengths and Risks Assessment and Child and Family Consult).

    What should someone do if they think a child is being neglected?
  • The best response for anyone with concerns about neglect of a particular child is to report their concerns to Child, Youth and Family.

    How are agencies working together to help recognise, respond to and prevent child neglect?
  • Community Link provides an opportunity for families to more easily access the help and support they need by bringing together organisations, both government and non-government, in the same location to work in a joined up way to support families with multiple needs.
  • There are a number of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) that set out operational processes for government agencies to work together to recognise, respond to and help prevent child neglect.
  • Strengthening Families is a community-based initiative that brings together all the agencies that have a part to play in helping a family/whānau and together an action plan is developed to help the family/ whānau to get access to the services they need.
  • MSD is leading work across government to develop options to improve information sharing to better protect vulnerable children.
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