What Is Child Neglect?

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What Is Child Neglect?

Child 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. 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.

According to the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2018, approximately 678,000 children in the country were deemed victims of abuse or neglect, with about 60.8% of those suffering from neglect. Even worse, the bureau estimated that 1,770 children died in 2018 from abuse or 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, who struggles 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

When you think of a neglected child, you probably think of a child without food or left at home alone for long periods of time. But neglect comes in many different forms.

According to the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, here are the basic types of neglect:

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

Risk Factors

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

Sometimes neglect is completely unintentional, such as the case of a young parent who doesn’t understand basic child development. They may not recognize how often their 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 parent who is under the influence of drugs may not be able to prevent their toddler from wandering outside alone.

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

  • Child factors: Developmental delays
  • Environmental factors: Poverty, lack of social support, or neighborhood distress
  • Family factors: Single-parent households, domestic violence, or family stress
  • Parent factors: Unemployment, low socioeconomic status, young maternal age, parenting stress, health issues, mental illness, or substance abuse issues

Child neglect isn’t always the result of a parent failing to attend to their children’s needs; sometimes, the options aren’t available due to lack of funds or resources.

Warning Signs

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
  • Misuses 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
  • Misuses drugs or alcohol

Consequences

When kids are neglected, this maltreatment impacts their overall development and health. In fact, neglect has been linked to later physical, psychological, and behavioral consequences. Even if a child is removed from a bad situation, the consequences of neglect can last for a long time and can even lead to high-risk behaviors like substance misuse.

Here's a closer look at 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 50.3% of children suffered from special health care needs 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 or disinhibited social engagement disorder. 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 75% of all child maltreatment-related deaths include 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

Depending on the state in which you live, once a report of child neglect is filed, a social worker or a child protective services agent will contact the family to schedule an interview or a visit. Their primary responsibility is to ensure the child is safe.

Sometimes, they are able to increase safety and reduce neglect simply by providing the family with resources and education. In other 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.

These professionals can then assist with appropriate interventions, such as medical services, dental care, or educational services. And when warranted, the social worker or agent will refer the case to family or criminal court.

After the most immediate concerns are addressed, each child's needs are evaluated to determine what types of intervention might be beneficial. For instance, mental health treatment may be helpful for the neglected child.

Children who have experienced maltreatment may benefit from therapeutic services to help them address their emotions, behaviors, or concerns. Likewise, treatment, such as substance abuse services or mental health treatment, also may be given to caregivers to help them become better equipped to care for their children.

How to Report Child Neglect

State laws vary on who is required to report child neglect. In some states, only medical professionals, teachers, childcare providers, and law enforcement officers are mandated reporters.

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

If you are a victim of child abuse or know someone who might be, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Trained professionals investigate reports of neglect and abuse. A comprehensive assessment helps determine what type of services may be necessary to keep children safe.

While you may be reluctant to report child neglect, it's important that if you suspect something is wrong that you notify the appropriate authorities. Even if you’re unsure of the situation, don’t hesitate to make a report.

If a child is being maltreated, 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. Or, at the very least you will have alerted authorities so that the family can be connected to the resources that they need.

On the other hand, if you're mistaken and a child is not being neglected, then nothing will come of the investigation. The important thing is that you take steps to protect a child you think may be in danger.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services: Children's Bureau. Child maltreatment 2018. Updated June 12, 2020.

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. Definitions of child abuse and neglect in federal law.

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau. Acts of omission: an overview of child neglect. 

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau. Risk factors that contribute to child abuse and neglect.

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms.

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. Long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect.

  7. Ringeisen H, Casanueva C, Urato M, Cross T. Special health care needs among children in the child welfare system. Pediatrics. 2008 Jul 1;122(1):e232-41. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-3778

  8. Wilson E, Dolan M, Smith K, Casanueva C, Ringeisen H. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NSCAW child well-being spotlight: Adolescents with a history of maltreatment have unique service needs that may affect their transition to adulthood. Updated April 29, 2019.

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