Domestic Violence and Child Abuse

Ruth Herbert

Intimate partner violence (IPV) and child abuse and neglect (CAN) are at epidemic proportions in New Zealand and are undoubtedly two of our most critical social issues. Despite a plethora of reports, a strong legislative framework and the efforts of successive governments and many NGOs that have strategised and delivered services to try and ‘fix’ the problem, real improvements seem to remain elusive. Why is this?

IPV and CAN are complex social issues but we have traditionally responded as if there are linear or ‘tame’ problems – trying one-off, ‘quick fix’, simplistic solutions appearing to think that if we just do one or two more things we can solve the problem. All indications are that continuing with this approach is unlikely to lead to any significant reduction in IPV and CAN in New Zealand.

The New Zealand and international evidence is clear that IPV and CAN are entangled forms of abuse and in a high proportion of families both are occurring. However, our system is designed to respond to one or the other as if they were mutually exclusive. Services that respond to CAN are unlikely to be successful unless they are integrated with those that respond to current or past IPV and vice versa.

IPV and CAN are often reported and responded to as if they are one-off ‘incidents’. They need to be seen as ‘episodes’ that are part of an ongoing pattern or history of frequent, sustained and repeated acts of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. The trauma caused by experiencing chronic and repeated victimisation over time has a cumulative and snowballing effect resulting in serious, complex and often long term harm.

In New Zealand the incidence and negative effects of IPV and CAN are spreading rapidly like an infectious disease – from one person to another and from one generation to the next. New Zealand and international evidence is now clear that IPV and CAN manifest in many other social issues:

  • Experiencing IPV contributes to poverty. The majority of women on welfare in US studies are current or past victims of IPV
  • IPV victims/survivors are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs as a method of coping or self-medicating
  • 62% of female IPV victims/survivors have at least one post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) symptom
  • Adult victims/survivors of CAN are 26 times more likely to be homeless as adults
  • Youth CAN victims/survivors are 3 -3.65 times more likely to have attempted suicide
  • Youth CAN victims/survivors are 3 to 4 times more likely to attack someone with a weapon and 84% of all prison inmates have been abused as a child
  • Approx 2/3rds of 13-15 year olds in alternative education CAN (including exposure to IPV) victims/survivors victims
  • Children exposed to violence in the home are more likely to be bullied or to bully other children and bullies are 5.63 times more likely to become IPV abusers.

The list goes on. Attempting to remedy the consequential social issues is likely to be ineffective unless we treat the damage caused by the underlying abuse.

The current ‘system’ is fragmented and inconsistent, with gaps and overlaps. The new public management model introduced throughout the New Zealand public sector in the 1980s created a fractured landscape of hundreds of agencies planning and delivering IPV and CAN services on behalf of government. There is no infrastructure, overarching strategy or clear lines of accountability to hold all the various parts together.

Victims/survivors, abusers and families often find it difficult to navigate their way through a complex maze of disconnected services and systems each with different policies and processes. Agencies operate as silos and invariably do not know what other agencies can offer and hence are unable to make appropriate referrals.

There are no mechanisms to repair parts of the system when things go wrong and no evidence-based and standardised safety planning. There is virtually no routine outcome monitoring and most new initiatives have never been evaluated. There are no formal accreditation processes for NGO service providers and no independent audits undertaken of those services.

Well intentioned co-ordination and collaboration initiatives have resulted in over 200 largely disconnected leadership, governance and multi-agency groups, networks and coordinators around the country. There is evidence that these efforts appear to be falling short. Many initiatives have not been well implemented and are not achieving measurable or sustainable outcomes. In most regions they are not integrated, and have merely added to the fragmentation, inefficiencies, confusion and competition for scarce resources.

Only 20 percent of IPV and CAN is currently reported to the New Zealand Police. We cannot expect to address the intergenerational transfer of the problem or the impact that IPV and CAN is having on so many other social issues or if we are failing to reach 80 percent of cases.

New Zealand needs a system that has the greatest positive impact on as many cases as possible. We need to intervene earlier and more effectively. In doing so we would not only reduce the incidence of IPV and CAN but reduce the incidence of the many other linked social issues.

However, attempting to identify and respond to more cases more effectively with the current system would be akin to building a new story on a house that has poor foundations. It would simply not hold up; money would be wasted and in time, the cost of fixing it would be much greater than if the job had been done properly in the first place.

We urgently need to rethink our approach because IPV and CAN are placing a heavy burden on individuals, our society and the New Zealand economy. The full extent of this is not well understood, but the evidence indicates that IPV and CAN currently cost the New Zealand economy at least $8.326 billion per annum.

The Integrated System model proposed in the recently released report ‘The Way Forward – An Integrated System for Intimate Partner Violence and Child Abuse and Neglect in New Zealand’ is not another remedial ‘quick fix’ , strategy or new service initiative. It is the infrastructure that would provide a more joined-up, evidence-based and evaluated system to enable strategic considerations, service development and sustained and long term change to happen.

The Integrated System would provide a nationally consistent framework and the processes to link and support all parts of the system to work together. It would build on what works, incorporate the existing networks, agencies and multi-agency processes, fill gaps and remove overlaps and inconsistencies. It would be evidence based and enable innovation, reflective practice and continuous improvement. It would provide a ‘one door – right door’ approach where regardless of the point at which individual(s) enter they can be easily connected to multiple other parts of the system.

Other countries are already taking steps to adopt an integrated system approach and New Zealand is fortunate to be in a position to learn from their experiences. Establishing an integrated system would involve changing the way that policy and service development for IPV and CAN have traditionally happened in New Zealand but the cost of not doing this and continuing with the status quo is too high in every sense.



Herbert, R. and Mackenzie, D. (2014). The Way Forward – an Integrated System for Intimate Partner Violence and Child Abuse and Neglect in New Zealand. Wellington, The Impact Collective. Available at

Categories: Crime
Ruth Herbert
About the author

Ruth Herbert

Director - The Impact Collective
Ruth Herbert is well known as a researcher, campaigner and advocate working to improve New Zealand's system response to violence against women and children. She has researched and written extensively on these matters. Ruth has a Master of Public Policy (dist.) and was awarded Victoria University's 2008 Holmes Prize for her evaluation of New Zealand’s family violence strategies. In recent years she has been a member of the independent review into ACC's sensitive claims pathway, Director of Family Violence at the Ministry of Social Development and Executive Director of the Glenn Inquiry.