What Is Child Neglect?

Young boy sitting on swings alone looking sad
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Most adults, particularly parents, can’t fathom the idea of neglecting a child. Sadly, though, thousands of cases of child neglect exist in the United States.

During 2015, according to the Children’s Bureau, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 683,000 children in the country were deemed victims of abuse or neglect, with about 75 percent of those suffering from neglect.

Even worse, the bureau estimated that 1,670 children died in 2015 from abuse or neglect.

Neglect is one of the most common forms of child mistreatment. It can affect a child’s physical and mental health and can lead to long-term consequences.

Definition of Neglect

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines neglect legally as "Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that presents an imminent risk of serious harm to the child."

State laws often define neglect as the failure of a parent or caregiver to provide needed food, shelter, clothing, medical care, or supervision to the degree that a child’s health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm.

Some states include exceptions for determining neglect. For example, a parent who declines certain medical treatments for a child based on religious beliefs may be given an exemption.

A parent's financial situation may also be taken into consideration.

A parent living in poverty, for example, may struggle to provide children with adequate food or shelter, may not be considered neglectful if the family is applying for financial assistance or if they're doing the best with what they have.

Types of Neglect

Neglect comes in several different forms. Here are the basic types of neglect:

  • Physical neglect – Not caring for a child’s basic needs like hygiene, clothing, nutrition, or shelter, or abandoning a child.
  • Medical neglect – Denying or delaying necessary or recommended medical treatment.
  • Inadequate supervision – Leaving a child who can’t care for herself home alone, not protecting a child from safety hazards, or leaving the child with inadequate caregivers.
  • Emotional neglect – Exposing a child to domestic violence or substance abuse, or not providing affection or emotional support.
  • Educational neglect – Failing to enroll a child in school, allowing a child to repeatedly skip school, or ignoring a child’s special education needs.

Risk Factors for Neglect

Parents don't set out to neglect their children. But, due to various factors, some parents aren't able to adequately meet a child's needs.

Sometimes neglect is completely unintentional, such as the case of a young mother who doesn’t understand basic child development. She may not recognize how often her infant needs to be fed or changed.

At other times, the parents’ mental illness or substance abuse issues may prevent them from providing their children with adequate care. A father who is under the influence of drugs may not be able to prevent his toddler from wandering outside alone.

The following factors have been found to increase children’s risk of being neglected:

  • Environmental factors – poverty, lack of social support, neighborhood distress
  • Family factors – single parent households, domestic violence, family stress
  • Parent Factors – unemployment, low socioeconomic status, young maternal age, parenting stress, health issues, mental illness, substance abuse issues
  • Child factors – developmental delays

Signs of Child Neglect

Often, it’s a teacher or a concerned neighbor who may recognize warning signs that a child is neglected. An underweight child who only rarely attends school or a young child who plays outside at all hours of the day without an adult in sight may raise red flags.

There are a number of signs that could indicate the possibility that a child is being neglected, including:

  • Frequent absences from school
  • Lacks sufficient clothing or is inappropriately dressed for the weather
  • Steals or begs for food or money
  • Is consistently dirty or has severe body odor
  • Abuses alcohol or drugs
  • Lacks needed medical or dental care, glasses, or immunizations
  • States that no one is home to provide care

Signs that a parent or caregiver may not be caring for a child adequately include:

  • Irrational or bizarre behavior
  • Seems apathetic or depressed
  • Appears to be indifferent toward a child
  • Abuses drugs or alcohol

Child neglect isn’t always the result of a parent failing to attend to their children’s need; sometimes, the options aren’t available due to lack of funds or resources. When a parent isn't able to care for a child due to lack of resources, services are often put into place to assist the family in meeting a child's needs.

Consequences of Neglect

Even if a child is removed from a bad situation, the consequences of neglect can last for a long time. Here are a few of the consequences a child who is neglected may experience:

  • Health and development problems – Malnourishment may impair brain development. A lack of adequate immunizations and medical problems could lead to a variety of health conditions. The National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being discovered that 28 percent of children suffered from chronic health conditions three years after being removed from a neglectful situation.
  • Cognitive impairments – A lack of appropriate stimulation could lead to ongoing intellectual problems. Children with a history of neglect may have academic problems or delayed or impaired language development.
  • Emotional problems – Neglect can lead to attachment issues, self-esteem problems, and difficulty trusting others.
  • Social and behavioral problems – Children who are neglected may struggle to develop healthy relationships and they may experience behavior disorders. NSCAW data determined that more than half of those who were mistreated in youth were at risk of substance abuse, delinquency, truancy, or pregnancy.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly two-thirds of all child maltreatment-related deaths involve neglect. Fatal incidents of neglect are most likely to occur with children under the age of 7. Neglect fatalities most often stem from a lack of supervision, chronic physical neglect, or medical neglect.

Treatment for Neglected Children

The first step in treating a neglected child is to ensure the child is safe. Service providers may be able to increase safety and reduce neglect by providing a family with resources and education.

In some cases, children may need to be placed in another environment to prevent further harm. A child may be placed with a relative who can provide adequate care, for example.

Service providers can then assist with appropriate interventions, such as medical services, dental care, or educational services.

Mental health treatment may also be helpful. Children who have been neglected may benefit from therapeutic services to help them address their emotions, behavior, or concerns.

Treatment, such as substance abuse services or mental health treatment, may also be given to caregivers to help them become better equipped to care for their children.

How to Report Neglect

When it comes to reporting neglect, state laws vary on who is required to report it. In some states, only medical professionals, teachers, childcare providers, and law enforcement officers are mandated reporters.

In other states, every citizen who suspects abuse or neglect are required to report it. Reasonable suspicion—may include firsthand observations or overhearing statements made by a parent or child—is all that is needed to report abuse or neglect.

If you think a child is being neglected, notify the Department of Health and Human Services. You can also call 1-800-4-A-Children (1-800-422-4453) to report child neglect. Trained professionals investigate the reports of neglect and abuse. A comprehensive assessment helps determine what type of services may be necessary to keep children safe.

If you think a child in your life is being neglected, don’t hesitate to report it, even if you’re unsure of the situation. The earlier the authorities can intervene, the earlier the child can get help—and, you never know, you might have just saved a child’s life.

Sources

Ben-David V, Jonson-Reid M. Resilience among adult survivors of childhood neglect: A missing piece in the resilience literatureChildren and Youth Services Review. 2017;78:93-103.

Child Welfare Information Gateway: Acts of Omission: An Overview of Child Neglect.

Lavi I, Katz C. Neglected voices: Lessons from forensic investigation following neglectChildren and Youth Services Review. 2016;70:171-176.

Shanahan ME, Runyan DK, Martin SL, Kotch JB. The within poverty differences in the occurrence of physical neglectChildren and Youth Services Review. 2017;75:1-6.

Wert MV, Fallon B, Trocmé N, Collin-Vézina D. Educational neglect: Understanding 20 years of child welfare trendsChild Abuse & Neglect. May 2017. 

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