What is Child Neglect?
Child neglect is a type of maltreatment in which the caregiver fails to provide needed, age-appropriate care, even though the caregiver is financially able, or would be if offered financial or other means, to do so. Neglect is often seen as an ongoing pattern of inadequate care that is easily observed by people who are in close contact with the child. Once children are in school, personnel often notice indicators of child neglect such as poor hygiene, poor weight gain, inadequate medical care, or frequent absences from school. Professionals have defined four types of neglect: physical, emotional, educational, and medical.
Child neglect is the most prevalent form of child abuse in the United States. In infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children, neglect is often reported by doctors, nurses, daycare personnel, neighbors, and relatives. School-aged children suffering from signs of neglect (poor hygiene, inadequate weight gain, infrequent medical care) are often reported by school personnel. More children suffer from neglect in the United States than from physical and sexual abuse combined. The US Department of Health and Human Services found that in 2007 there were 794,000 victims of child maltreatment in the US, of those victims 59% were victims of neglect. Some researchers have proposed 5 different types of neglect: physical neglect, emotional neglect, medical neglect, mental health neglect, and educational neglect. States may code any maltreatment type that does not fall into one of the main categories – physical abuse, neglect, medical neglect, sexual abuse, and psychological or emotional maltreatment—as “other.”
In spite of this, neglect has received significantly less attention than physical and sexual abuse by practitioners, researchers, and the media. One explanation may be that neglect is so difficult to identify. Neglect often is an act of omission. But neglecting children’s needs can be just as injurious as striking out at them.
How Is Child Abuse and Neglect Defined?
From Child Welfare.Gov, the federal legislation lays the groundwork for state laws on child abuse and neglect by identifying a minimum set of behaviors or actions that define child abuse and neglect. Most state and federal child protection laws refer primarily to cases of harm caused by parents or other caregivers; they do not often include acts of harm caused by other people, such as acquaintances or strangers. Some state laws include a child witnessing domestic violence as a form of abuse or neglect.
The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was amended and reauthorized by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010 defines child abuse and neglect as at a bare minimum:
“Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caregiver which results in death, serious emotional or physical harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act of failure to act presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”
What Are The Types of Child Neglect?
There are four recognized types of neglect that children suffer:
Physical Child Neglect – The majority of child neglect cases involve physical neglect, which is defined as a caregiver not providing a child with the basic necessities such as clothing, food, and shelter. Physical neglect may also involve child abandonment, improper supervision, rejection of a child (leading to expulsion from the home), improper safety measures, and failure to meet a child’s physical and emotional needs.
Failure or refusal to provide a child these basic necessities endangers a child’s physical health, well-being, psychological growth, and development. This may cause problems such as failure to thrive, malnutrition, chronic illness, a lifetime of low self-esteem, and injuries from improper supervision
Emotional/Psychological Child Neglect includes engaging in chronic or extreme domestic abuse in front of the child, allowing the child to abuse drugs and alcohol, refusal (or failure) to provide needed psychological care, belittling the child and withholding affection. Severe neglect of infants through failing to meet the needs of stimulation and/or nurturance can lead to failure to thrive and even death.
Emotional Child Neglect also includes:
- Corrupting or exploiting the child by encouraging illegal, destructive or antisocial behavior.
- Ignoring the child, consistently failing to provide stimulation, nurturance, encouragement, protection, or failure to acknowledge the child’s existence.
- Rejecting the child, actively refusing the child’s needs.
- Verbally assaulting the child through name-calling, threatening, or consistent belittlement.
- Isolating the child and preventing normal social contacts with other children and/or adults.
- Terrorizing the child with threats of extreme punishment, or creating a climate of terror by playing off the child’s fears.
These parental/caregiver behaviors can lead to substance use and abuse, low-self worth, suicide, and destructive behaviors in the child. Emotional child neglect is often difficult to substantiate and is generally reported secondarily to other forms of child neglect
Educational Child Neglect involves the failure of a parent/caregiver to enroll a child of mandatory school age in school or provide appropriate homeschooling or special education training. This allows the child to engage in chronic truancy. Educational child neglect leads to the failure of the child to develop basic life skills, consistent disruptive behavior, and dropping out of school. It can pose a major threat to the child’s emotional well-being, physical health, and normal psychological growth, especially when the child has special educational needs.
Medical Child Neglect is the failure to provide appropriate health care for a child when financially able to do so. This places a child at risk of being seriously disabled, disfigured, or dying. Even in non-emergencies, medical neglect may result in poor physical health and additional medical problems.
Medical child neglect may occur due to religious beliefs, fear or anxiety about a medical condition and its treatment, or financial issues, including lack of insurance coverage. Situations in which Child Protective Services will generally intervene via court order include:
- Child with life-threatening chronic disease is not receiving medical treatment.
- Acute medical emergency requires medical intervention.
- Child has a chronic condition that may cause disfigurement or disability if left untreated.
Medical child neglect is highly correlated with poverty. There is a clear-cut distinction between a parent/caregiver’s inability to provide needed care based upon cultural norms, a lack of financial resources, and a reluctance to provide care.
Children and their families may be in need of services even if the parent isn’t intentionally neglectful. If poverty is an issue, services may be offered to help families provide for their children.
What Are Some Symptoms Of Child Neglect?
Despite the overwhelming amount of children suffering neglect at home, this particular type of child abuse can be tricky to spot. Here are some possible symptoms of child neglect:
- Shows changes in behavior and/or school performance
- Lacks medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses
- Has learning issues (or difficulty concentrating) that can’t be attributed to a physical or psychological cause
- Is always watchful, like he or she is waiting for something bad to happen
- Is constantly dirty and has persistent body odor
- Hasn’t received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention.
- Lacks adult supervision
- States that no one is home to care for him or her
- Lacks sufficient clothing for the seasons (such as a missing coat)
- Frequently absent from school
- Abuses drugs or alcohol
- Begs and/or steals money or food
- Acts indifferently to the child
- Seems apathetic and/or depression
- Abuses drugs or alcohol
- Acts irrationally or bizarrely
Why Does Child Neglect Occur?
Most parents don’t hurt or neglect their children intentionally. Many were themselves abused or neglected. Very young or inexperienced parents might not know how to take care of their babies or what they can reasonably expect from children at different stages of development. Circumstances that place families under extraordinary stress—for instance, poverty, divorce, sickness, disability—sometimes take their toll in the maltreatment of children.
Researchers propose that factors of parenting stem from the parents’ own developmental history and psychological well-being, characteristics of the family and child, and coping strategies, and resources.
There are a myriad of reasons why child neglect may occur in a household. In some cases, parents are ill-prepared for parenthood, which may be remedied by learning better parenting skills through parenting classes. Other situations that may lead to child neglect and abuse include:
- Caregiver has a drug or alcohol addiction
- Family stress due to economic struggles and/or divorce
- Under- or untreated mental illness in the caregiver or children
- Caregiver was neglected as a child
- Domestic violence in the home
- Disabilities in the caregiver or child
- Family isolation, lack of family or social support
- Community violence and crime
What Is The Impact of Child Neglect?
The long-term impact and consequences of neglect in children vary wildly from person to person and depend, in part, upon several things:
- The child’s age and developmental status when the abuse or neglect occurred
- The type of maltreatment (physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, etc.)
- The frequency, duration, and severity of the maltreatment
- The relationship between the child and the perpetrator
Neglect can interrupt a child’s mental and physical development and lead to life-long psychological and physical problems.
Physical Health Consequences: Child abuse and neglect can have a multitude of long-term effects on physical health.
- Abusive head trauma and permanent disabilities: an inflicted injury to the head and its contents caused by shaking and blunt impact, is the most common cause of traumatic death for infants. The injuries may not be immediately noticeable and may include bleeding in the eye or brain and damage to the spinal cord and neck. Significant brain development takes place during infancy, and this important development is compromised in maltreated children. One in every four victims of shaken baby syndrome dies, and nearly all victims experience serious health consequences
- Impaired brain development. Child abuse and neglect have been shown to cause important regions of the brain to fail to form or grow properly, resulting in impaired development. These alterations in brain maturation have long-term consequences for cognitive, language, and academic abilities and are connected with mental health disorders.
- Poor health and chronic illness: Several studies have shown a relationship between various forms of child maltreatment and poor health. Adults who experienced abuse or neglect during childhood are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, lung and liver disease, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, and obesity.
Psychological Consequences: The immediate emotional effects of abuse and neglect—isolation, fear, and an inability to trust—can translate into lifelong psychological consequences, including low self-esteem, depression, and relationship difficulties. Researchers have identified links between child abuse and neglect and the following:
- Difficulties during infancy. Of children entering foster care in 2010, 16 percent were younger than 1 year. When infants and young children enter out-of-home care due to abuse or neglect, the trauma of a primary caregiver change negatively affects their attachments to others. Nearly half of infants in foster care who have experienced maltreatment exhibit some form of cognitive delay, have lower IQ scores, language difficulties, and neonatal challenges compared to children who have not been abused or neglected.
- Poor mental and emotional health. Experiencing childhood trauma and adversity, such as physical or sexual abuse, is a risk factor for borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders. One study found that roughly 54 percent of cases of depression and 58 percent of suicide attempts in women were connected to adverse childhood experiences Child maltreatment also negatively impacts the development of emotion regulation, which often persists into adolescence or adulthood.
- Cognitive difficulties: Researchers found that children with substantiated reports of maltreatment were at risk for severe developmental and cognitive problems, including grade repetition. More than 10 percent of school-aged children and youth showed some risk of cognitive problems or low academic achievement, 43 percent had emotional or behavioral problems, and 13 percent had both.
- Social difficulties: Children who experience neglect are more likely to develop antisocial traits as they grow up. Parental neglect is associated with borderline personality disorders, attachment issues or affectionate behaviors with unknown/little-known people, inappropriate modeling of adult behavior, and aggression.
Behavioral Consequences: Not all victims of child abuse and neglect will experience behavioral consequences. However, behavioral problems appear to be more likely among this group. More than half of youth reported for maltreatment are at risk for an emotional or behavioral problem Child abuse and neglect appear to make the following more likely:
- Difficulties during adolescence: More than half of youth with reports of maltreatment are at risk of grade repetition, substance abuse, delinquency, truancy, or pregnancy. Other studies suggest that abused or neglected children are more likely to engage in sexual risk-taking as they reach adolescence, thereby increasing their chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Victims of child sexual abuse also are at a higher risk for rape in adulthood, and the rate of risk increases according to the severity of the child sexual abuse experience(s)
- Juvenile delinquency and adult criminality. Several studies have documented the correlation between child abuse and future juvenile delinquency. Children who have experienced abuse are nine times more likely to become involved in other criminal activities.
- Alcohol and other drug abuse. Research consistently reflects an increased likelihood that children who have experienced abuse or neglect will smoke cigarettes, abuse alcohol, or take illicit drugs during their lifetime. In fact, male children who’ve had six or more adverse childhood experiences had an increased likelihood—of more than 4,000 percent—to use intravenous drugs later in life
- Abusive behavior. Abusive parents often have experienced abuse during their own childhoods. Data from the Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health showed that girls who experienced childhood physical abuse were 1–7 percent more likely to become perpetrators of youth violence and 8–10 percent more likely to be perpetrators of interpersonal violence (IPV). Boys who experienced childhood sexual violence were 3–12 percent more likely to commit youth violence and 1–17 percent more likely to commit IPV.
Societal Consequences: While child abuse and neglect usually occur within the family, the impact does not end there. Society as a whole pays a price for child abuse and neglect, in terms of both direct and indirect costs.
- Direct costs. The lifetime cost of child maltreatment and related fatalities in 1 year totals $124 billion, according to a study funded by the CDC. Child maltreatment is more costly on an annual basis than the two leading health concerns, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, programs that prevent maltreatment have shown to be cost effective. The U.S. Triple P System Trial, funded by the CDC, has a benefit/cost ratio of $47 in benefits to society for every $1 in program costs.
- Indirect costs. Indirect costs represent the long-term economic consequences to society because of child abuse and neglect. These include costs associated with increased use of our health-care system, juvenile and adult criminal activity, mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Prevent Child Abuse America estimates that child abuse and neglect prevention strategies can save taxpayers $104 billion each year. According to the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy (2011), every $1 spent on home visiting yields a $5.70 return on investment in New York, including reduced confirmed reports of abuse, reduced family enrollment in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, decreased visits to emergency rooms, decreased arrest rates for mothers, and increased monthly earnings. One study found that all eight categories of adverse childhood experiences were associated with an increased likelihood of employment problems, financial problems, and absenteeism/ The authors assert that these long-term costs—to the workforce and to society—are preventable
What To Do If You Suspect Child Neglect:
If you see a case of suspected child neglect, report it first to the local child protective services. Reasonable suspicion based upon objective evidence and firsthand observations or statements from a parent or child are all that is needed to report.
Call Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child to get a referral to your local agency. Those professionals who work with children are required by law (mandated reporters) to report any reasonable suspicion of child abuse and child neglect.
Child Neglect Hotlines:
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child
National Parent Helpline: 1-855-4A PARENT – 1-855-427-2736
What Will Happen If I Report Child Neglect?
Typically, an agent from Child Protective Services will be sent to the home to assess the environment in which the children live. The agent may interview the parents, children, other family members, and neighbors to assess the gravity of the situation and gain an understanding of the contributing factors.
Child Protective Services will determine what actions the caregivers should take in order to provide the children with appropriate care. Their goal is to protect the children while enabling families to provide appropriate care and stay intact. In some cases, custody may be suspended depending upon caregiver compliance and cooperation with action plans mandated to address the neglect. It will then be determined if temporary foster care (with a family member or a caregiver in the foster care program) is needed to care for the children while the caregivers address the cited issues, or if the children should be removed from the home permanently if the caregiver does not comply.
Additional Resources for Child Abuse and Neglect:
State-by-State listing of child abuse reporting agencies, their websites, and telephone numbers.
A list of child abuse and neglect programs listed by the US government.
Childhelp is a leading national non-profit organization dedicated to helping victims of child abuse and neglect. Childhelp’s approach focuses on prevention, intervention, and treatment. The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-4-A-CHILD, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and receives calls from throughout the United States, Canada, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
National Parent Helpline – Being a parent is a critically important job, 24 hours a day. It’s not always easy. Call the National Parent Helpline to get emotional support from a trained Advocate and become empowered and a stronger parent.
The Child Welfare Information Gateway provides extensive information on child neglect, its impacts, and the laws in place to prevent it.
Page last audited 8/2018