What is Neglect?

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Child neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver does not give a child the care he or she needs according to its age, even though that adult can afford to give that care or is offered help to give that care. Neglect can mean not giving food, clothing, and shelter. It can mean that a parent or caregiver is not providing a child with medical or mental health treatment or not giving prescribed medicines the child needs. Neglect can also mean neglecting the child’s education. Keeping a child from school or from special education can be neglect. Neglect also includes exposing a child to dangerous environments. It can mean poor supervision for a child, including putting the child in the care of someone incapable of caring for children. It can also mean abandoning a child or expelling it from home. Neglect is the most common form of abuse reported to child welfare authorities.

  1. Mild neglect usually does not warrant a report to Child Protective Services (CPS), but might necessitate a community-based intervention (e.g., a parent failing to put the child in a car safety seat).

  2. Moderate neglect occurs when less intrusive measures, such as community interventions, have failed or some moderate harm to the child has occurred (e.g., a child consistently is inappropriately dressed for the weather, such as being in shorts and sandals in the middle of winter). For moderate neglect, CPS may be involved in partnership with community support.

  3. Severe neglect occurs when severe or long-term harm has been done to the child (e.g., a child with asthma who has not received appropriate medications over a long period of time and is frequently admitted to the hospital). In these cases, CPS should be and is usually involved, as is the legal system.

Physical Neglect

Physical neglect is one of the most widely recognized forms. It includes:

  • Abandonment-the desertion of a child without arranging for his reasonable care or supervision. Usually, a child is considered abandoned when not picked up within 2 days.

  • Expulsion-the blatant refusal of custody, such as the permanent or indefinite expulsion of a child from the home, without adequately arranging for his care by others or the refusal to accept custody of a returned runaway.

  • Shuttling-when a child is repeatedly left in the custody of others for days or weeks at a time, possibly due to the unwillingness of the parent or the caregiver to maintain custody.

  • Nutritional neglect-when a child is undernourished or is repeatedly hungry for long periods of time, which can sometimes be evidenced by poor growth. Nutritional neglect often is included in the category of “other physical neglect.”

  • Clothing neglect-when a child lacks appropriate clothing, such as not having appropriately warm clothes or shoes in the winter.

  • Other physical neglect-includes inadequate hygiene and forms of reckless disregard for the child’s safety and welfare (e.g., driving while intoxicated with the child, leaving a young child in a car unattended).

Emotional Neglect

Typically, emotional neglect is more difficult to assess than other types of neglect, but is thought to have more severe and long-lasting consequences than physical neglect.29 It often occurs with other forms of neglect or abuse, which may be easier to identify, and includes:

  • Inadequate nurturing or affection-the persistent, marked inattention to the child’s needs for affection, emotional support, or attention.

  • Chronic or extreme spouse abuse-the exposure to chronic or extreme spouse abuse or other domestic violence.

  • Permitted drug or alcohol abuse-the encouragement or permission by the caregiver of drug or alcohol use by the child.

  • Other permitted maladaptive behavior-the encouragement or permission of other maladaptive behavior (e.g., chronic delinquency, assault) under circumstances where the parent or caregiver has reason to be aware of the existence and the seriousness of the problem, but does not intervene.

  • Isolation-denying a child the ability to interact or to communicate with peers or adults outside or inside the home

Medical Neglect

Failure to provide medical or dental care needed or as recommended by a competent healthcare practitioner. Delay of medical attention is also considered neglect when failure to seek timely and appropriate medical care fro a serious health problem that any reasonable person would have recognized as need professional medical intervention.

Inadequate Supervision

Neglect resulting from lack of supervision encompasses a number of areas including:

  • Lack of age-related appropriate supervision. Some states have a minimum age limit for a person to be considered an appropriate caregiver to a child. In most states, that age is 12.

  • Exposure to hazards. This can include safety hazards such as poisons or other chemicals, electric wires, drugs and drug paraphernalia, unprotected prescription drugs, toxic cleaning supplies, etc.

  • Allowance of illegal or dangerous behavior. This includes either permitting, or not monitoring and deterring children from participating in risky, illegal, or harmful behaviors.

Environmental Neglect

Neglect that falls into this category stems from a child living in circumstances deemed dangerous or life-threatening. This can be characterized by a lack of environmental or neighborhood safety, opportunities, or resources.

What are the typical signs of neglect?

It can be difficult to observe a situation and to know for certain whether neglect has occurred. Behaviors and attitudes indicating that a parent or other adult caregiver may be neglectful include if he or she:

  • Appears to be indifferent to the child

  • Seems apathetic or depressed

  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner

  • Abuses alcohol or drugs

  • Denies the existence of or blames the child for the child’s problems in school or at home

  • Sees the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome

  • Looks to the child primarily for care, attention, or satisfaction of emotional needs

Indicators of neglect are more likely to be visible in the appearance or behavior of the child. Mandatory reporters and concerned individuals should consider reporting possible neglect if they notice that a child:

  • Wears soiled clothing or clothing that is significantly too small or large or is often in need of repair

  • Seems inadequately dressed for the weather

  • Always seems to be hungry; hoards, steals, or begs for food; or comes to school with little food

  • Often appears listless and tired with little energy

  • Frequently reports caring for younger siblings

  • Demonstrates poor hygiene, smells of urine or feces, or has dirty or decaying teeth

  • Seems emaciated or has a distended stomach (indicative of malnutrition)

  • Has unattended medical or dental problems, such as infected sores

  • States that there is no one at home to provide care

What is the impact of neglect?

The seriousness of the neglect is determined not only by how much harm or risk of harm there is to the child, but also by how chronic the neglect is. Chronicity can be defined as “patterns of the same acts or omissions that extend over time or recur over time.” An example of chronic neglect would be parents with substance abuse problems who do not provide for the basic needs of their children on an ongoing basis. On the other hand, caregivers might have minor lapses in care, which are seldom thought of as neglect, such as occasionally forgetting to give their children their antibiotics. However, if those children were frequently missing doses, it may be considered neglect. Some situations only need to occur once in order to be considered neglect, such as leaving an infant unattended in a bathtub. Because some behaviors are considered neglect only if they occur on a frequent basis, it is important to look at the history of behavior rather than focusing on one particular incident.

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