What Is Child Neglect?

young girl with hair in her face walking outside wearing a backpack
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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 adverse consequences. Child neglect springs from many complex issues, including parental mental health, poverty, and drug and alcohol use.

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. Moreover, the bureau estimated that 1,770 children died in 2018 from abuse or neglect.

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act (CAPTA) legally defines neglect 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. Additionally, some parents may need to leave children at home or under the care of older siblings while they work or go to school.

Types

When you think of a neglected child, what may come to mind is a child going hungry 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, there are several basic categories of neglect, including:

  • 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 use, or not providing affection or emotional support
  • Inadequate supervision: Leaving a child who can’t care for themselves 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

Most parents have good intentions and don't set out to neglect their children. But, unfortunately, 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 or know that a 5-year-old shouldn't be left home alone.

At other times, the parent's mental illness or substance use 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, for example.

The following factors have been found to increase a child’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, historically underserved communities, or family stress
  • Parent factors: Unemployment, low income, young maternal age, parenting stress, health issues, mental illness, or substance use

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, understanding, support, resources, or other practical reasons.

Warning Signs

Often, it’s a teacher or a concerned neighbor or relative 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. Outward signs may include frequent absences from school, poor hygiene such as being consistently dirty or having severe body odor, lack of sufficient clothing, and being inappropriately dressed for the weather. Signs that the child isn't receiving needed medical, dental, or vision care are also warning signs.

Additionally, the child's behavior may raise flags. Children who steal or beg for food or money, use alcohol and drugs, or simply state that they are regularly home alone may be experiencing neglect.

Signs that a parent or caregiver may not be caring for a child adequately typically center around their behaviors such as an appearance of indifference or apathy toward their child, misuse of drugs or alcohol, or irrational or bizarre behavior.

Consequences

Neglect impacts a child's overall development and health and has 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 use.

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 use, delinquency, truancy, or unplanned 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. For example, a child may be placed in foster care or with a relative who can provide adequate care.

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, any person who suspects abuse or neglect is required to report it. Reasonable suspicion—including firsthand observations or overhearing statements made by the parent or child—is all that is needed to report potential 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.

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

A Word From Verywell

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. If you’re unsure of the situation, follow your instincts, but don’t hesitate to make a report if you have concerns.

If a child is being maltreated, the earlier the authorities can intervene, the earlier the child can get help—and you might have even just saved a child’s life and helped them to get any services and attention they may require. Additionally, you will have alerted authorities so that the family can be connected to the resources and support that they need.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Children's Bureau. Child maltreatment 2018.

  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.

Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.