Child neglect

Child neglect

Child neglect is defined as:

  1. "the failure of a person responsible for a child’s care and upbringing to safeguard the child’s emotional and physical health and general well-being"[1]
  2. acts of commission, harm to a child may or may not be the intended consequence[2]
  3. a serious form of maltreatment[3]
  4. the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs resulting in serious impairment of health and/or development.[4]



Neglect is notoriously difficult to define as there are no clear, cross-cultural standards for desirable or minimally adequate child rearing practices.[5] Research shows that neglect often co-exists with other forms of abuse and adversity.[6][7] While neglect generally refers to the absence of parental care and the chronic failure to meet children’s basic needs, defining those needs has not been straightforward. “Working Together”[8] defines neglect as:

..the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse. Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter (including exclusion from home or abandonment); protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger; ensure adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate care-givers); or ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment. It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child's basic emotional needs.


In practice, child neglect exists as a continuum ranging from reactive and short term to chronic and severe neglect. The following are types of child neglect (not legal definitions):

Failure to provide
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Medical/dental neglect
  • Educational neglect
Failure to supervise
  • Inadequate supervision
  • Exposure to violent environments


The causes of child neglect are complex and can be attributed to three different levels; an intrapersonal, an inter-personal/family and a social/ecological level.[4] Although the causes of neglect are varied, studies suggest that, amongst other things, parental mental health problems, substance use,[9][10] domestic violence,[11][12] unemployment,[13] and poverty[14] are factors which increase the likelihood of neglect. Children that result from unintended pregnancies are more likely to suffer from abuse and neglect,[15][16] they are also more likely to live in poverty[17]. Neglectful families often experience a variety or a combination of adverse factors.

At the intra-personal level, the discussion around neglectful parent’s characteristics often focuses on mothers, reflecting traditional notions of women as primary caregivers for children.[4][18] "Neglectful attributes" have included an inability to plan, lack of confidence about the future, difficulty with managing money, emotional immaturity, lack of knowledge of children's needs, a large number of children, being a teenage mother, high levels of stress and poor socioeconomic circumstances.[19][20][21][22][23] Mental health problems, particularly depression, have been linked with a parent's inability to meet a child's needs.[24] Likewise, substance misuse is believed to play a crucial role in undermining a parent’s ability to cope with parental responsibilities. While the literature largely focuses on mothers, the role of fathers in neglect as well as the impact of their absence remains largely unexplored. There is still little known about whether mothers and fathers neglect differently and how this affects children. Similarly, not much is known about whether girls and boys experience neglect differently. More research in this area and a gendered analysis of neglect would be useful.

At the inter-personal/family level, a significant number of neglectful families are headed by a lone mother or have a transient male.[25] Unstable and abusive relationships have also been mentioned as increasing the risk of child neglect. The impact of living with domestic violence on children frequently includes either direct violence or forced witnessing of abuse, which is potentially very damaging to children.[26] While the UK Department of Health connects children’s exposure to domestic violence to parents' failure to protect them from emotional harm,[27] the notion of "failure to protect" has been challenged as it focuses primarily on the responsibility of the abused parent, usually the mother, who is often herself at significant risk.[28] A recent reform to the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004) has introduced a new offence of causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult, thus reinforcing the notion of "failure to protect". Research on domestic violence, however, has consistently shown that supporting the non-abusive parent is good child protection. There is some indication of the cyclical and inter-generational nature of neglect. A study on childhood abuse and later sensitivity to a child’s emotions showed that mothers with a self-reported history of physical abuse had higher indications of insensitivity and lack of attunement to infants’ emotional cues than mothers with no history of abuse.[29] Although the literature suggests that neglectful parents may have been affected adversely by their own past experiences, more research is needed to explore the link between past experiences of maltreatment and neglectful parenting behaviours.[30]

At the social/ecological level, the association between poverty and neglect has frequently been made. The NSPCC maltreatment study supports the association between neglect and lower socio-economic class.[12] US studies have shown that less affluent families are more likely to be found to maltreat their children, particularly in the form of neglect and physical abuse, than affluent families.[31][32] Some argue that many forms of physical neglect, such as inadequate clothing, exposure to environmental hazards and poor hygiene may be directly attributed to poverty[33] whereas others are more cautious in making a direct link.[13] While poverty is believed to increase the likelihood of neglect, it is important to highlight that poverty does not predetermine neglect.[34] Many low-income families are not neglectful but provide loving homes for their children. However, when poverty coexists with other forms of adversity, it can negatively impact parent’s ability to cope with stressors and undermine their capacity to adequately respond to their child's needs. McSherry argues that the relationship between child neglect and poverty should be seen as circular and interdependent.[34]

Currently Child Neglect is illegal in all 50 states of the union.

See also


  1. ^ Anon. "child neglect". LoveToKnow, Corp. Retrieved 29 April 2010. 
  2. ^ Leeb RT; Paulozzi LJ; Melanson C; Simon TR & Arias I (2008-01-01). "Child Maltreatment Surveillance: Uniform Definitions for Public Health and Recommended Data Elements". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 2008-10-20. 
  3. ^ Bovarnick S (2007). Child neglect. NSPCC child protection research briefing
  4. ^ a b c Turney, D & Tanner, K (2005). Understanding and Working with Neglect. Research in Practice: Every Child Matters Research Briefings 10: 1-8.
  5. ^ Gaudin, J M (1999) Child Neglect: Short-term and Long-term Outcomes. In H Dubowitz (ed) Neglected Children: Research, Practice and Policy. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  6. ^ Daniel, B (2005) Introduction to Issues for Health and Social Care in Neglect. In J Taylor & B Daniel (eds) Child Neglect: Practice Issues for Health and Social Care (11-25). London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  7. ^ Claussen, A & Cicchetti, P (1991) Physical and Psychological Maltreatment: Relations among Types of Maltreatment. Child Abuse and Neglect 15: 5-18.
  8. ^ Department for Education and Skills (2006) Working Together to Safeguard Children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. London: DfES.
  9. ^ Stone B (1998) Child neglect: practitioners' perspectives. Child Abuse Review 7(2): 87-96.
  10. ^ Cleaver H, Unell I & Aldgate J (1999) Children's Needs - Parental Capacity: The Impact of Parental Mental Illness, Problem Alcohol and Drug Use, and Domestic Violence on Children's Development. London: The Stationery Office.
  11. ^ Shepard M & Raschick M (1999) How Child Welfare Workers Assess and Intervene around Issues of Domestic Violence. Child Maltreatment 4:148-156.
  12. ^ a b Cawson P (2002) Child Maltreatment in the Family: The experience of a national sample of young people. London: National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
  13. ^ a b Minty, B & Pattinson, G (1994) The Nature of Child Neglect. British Journal of Social Work 24(6): 733-747.
  14. ^ Thoburn, J, Wilding, J & Watson, J (2000) Family Support in Cases of Emotional Maltreatment and Neglect. London: The Stationary Office.
  15. ^ Lesa Bethea (1999). "Primary Prevention of Child Abuse". American Family Physician. 
  16. ^ Eisenberg, Leon; Brown, Sarah Hart (1995). The best intentions: unintended pregnancy and the well-being of children and families. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press. pp. 73–74. ISBN 0-309-05230-0. 
  17. ^ Monea J, Thomas A (June 2011). "Unintended pregnancy and taxpayer spending". Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 43: 88–93. doi:10.1363/4308811. 
  18. ^ Scourfield, J (2003) Gender and Child Protection. Houndsmills: Palgrave MacMillan.
  19. ^ Coohey, C (1995) Neglectful Mothers, Their Mothers, and Partners: The Significance of Mutual Aid. Child Abuse and Neglect 19 (8): 885-895.
  20. ^ Giovanni, J M & Becerra, R M (1979) Defining Child Abuse. New York: The Free Press.
  21. ^ Mayall, P D & Norgard, K E (1983) Child Abuse and Neglect: Sharing Responsibility. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.
  22. ^ Polansky, N A, Chalmers, M A, Buttenwieser, E & Williams D P (1981) Damaged Parents: An Anatomy of Child Neglect. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  23. ^ Thompson, R A (1995) Preventing Child Maltreatment Through Social Support. Thousand Oaks, CA; London; New Delhi: Sage.
  24. ^ Minty, B (2005) The Nature of Emotional Child Neglect and Abuse. In J Taylor & B Daniel (eds) Child Neglect: Practice Issues for Health and Social Care (57-72). London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  25. ^ Stevenson, O (1998) Neglected Children: Issues and Dilemmas. Oxford: Blackwell.
  26. ^ Radford, L & Hester, M (2006). Mothering Through Domestic Violence. London: Jessica Kingsley.
  27. ^ Department of Health (2000) Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families. London: The Stationery Office.
  28. ^ Hester, M, Pearson, C & Harwin, N Abrahams, H.' (2006) Making an Impact: Children and Domestic Violence - a Reader. London: Jessica Kingsley
  29. ^ Casanova, G, Domanic, J, McCanne, T & Milner, J (1994) Physiological Responses to Child Stimuli in Mothers with and without a Childhood History of Physical Abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect 18: 995-1004.
  30. ^ Harmer, A, Sanderson, J & Mertin, P (1999) Influence of Negative Childhood Experiences on Psychological Functioning, Social Support, and Parenting for Mothers Recovering from Addiction. Child Abuse and Neglect 23: 421–433.
  31. ^ Wolock, I & Horowitz, B (1979) Child Maltreatment and Material Deprivation. Social Services Review 53: 175-194.
  32. ^ Sedlak, A J & Broadhurst, D D (1996) Executive Summary of the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: National Centre on Child Abuse and Neglect, HHS.
  33. ^ Dubowitz, H (1994) Neglecting the neglect of neglect. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 9 (4): 556–560.
  34. ^ a b McSherry D (2004) Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? Examining the Relationship between Child Neglect and Poverty. British Journal of Social Work 34: 727–733.

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