Child Abuse Detection, Reporting and Treatment > Chapter 6 - Signs of Neglect

Chapter 6: Signs of Neglect

Child neglect is an act of omission rather than commission. It isn't about what the parent does, but what he/she does not do. Because of these acts of omission, the child is insufficiently cared for, causing physical and emotional suffering. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, more children suffer from neglect in America than from physical and sexual abuse combined. A study conducted in 1993 found that almost two million children were endangered by neglect in the United States. Yet child neglect has received much less attention than physical and sexual abuse by medical and mental health professionals, CPS, and by the media. The "big stories" are nearly always focused on heinous incidents of physical and sexual abuse by parents or other adults. One explanation for this lack of attention may be that some types of neglect can be difficult to identify and/or pinpoint. In general, neglect is often defined as the failure of the child's primary caretaker to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, supervision and medical care. What constitutes "adequate" is often in the eye of the beholder; serious neglect that clearly endangers the child's health and even his/her life tends to be obvious, while more subtle signs of neglect go unnoticed.

[QN.No.3.Child abuse is:]

Another point of contention in determining child neglect is the question of whether the caretaker is willfully depriving the child, or is the caretaker unable to provide for the child due to extreme poverty, mental illness, hospitalization, incarceration, or addiction. If the caretaker is incapacitated for some reason, does neglect also include failing to provide for the child's educational and emotional needs?

Leaving these questions to legal and research professionals, each state provides its own definition of child neglect: the reporting laws for child maltreatment, the state's criminal codes, and the juvenile court statutes.

In general, child neglect is defined within these parameters:
  • The child's frequent, unexplained absences from school.
  • The child begs or steals food or money.
  • The child lacks necessary medical or dental care, immunizations, or eyeglasses.
  • The child is consistently dirty and has severe body odor.
  • The child lacks sufficient clothing for the weather.
  • The child abuses alcohol or other drugs.
  • The child states that there is no one at home to provide care.
  • The parent appears to be indifferent to the child's needs.
  • The parent seems apathetic or depressed.
  • The parent behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner.
  • The parent is abusing alcohol or other drugs.
[QN.No.6.Child neglect is:]

Beyond these guidelines lie questions that are even more convoluted: does neglect include exposing the child to illegal activity in the home, do religious practices about withholding immunizations and medical care constitute neglect, and is neglect merely a form of abuse, not a separate category of parental behavior? Based upon our Constitutional rights regarding freedom of religion, states must seriously question whether withholding medical, dental or educational services should be substantiated as child neglect; one person's neglect is another person's religion. Inflicting behavioral requirements or religious values upon another is treading very thin Constitutional ice. It is not sufficient to ask whether the child is being harmed; if a child dies due to the parent(s)' refusal to allow immunizations or blood transfusions because of their religious beliefs, then the child has been harmed according to mainstream society. But to others, the child's death was God's will. These legal issues have been the subject of numerous lawsuits, and there is still no standard response.

Other types of neglect are clearly not related to religious values; every child needs adequate food, clothing and shelter. For medical professionals and others, a child who is chronically filthy, is not clothed for the weather, is living in an unsafe environment, is not adequately supervised, has been abandoned or expelled from the home, is allowed to engage in illegal activities, and/or has been exposed to domestic violence is clearly a neglected child.

It may come to the attention of medical personnel that a child is a victim of chronic neglect when the child is malnourished (especially to the point of emaciation), was injured due to lack of parental supervision and/or an unsafe environment, or has become seriously ill due to the lack of immunizations that is not based upon religious beliefs. Physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners and physician assistants should focus upon caring for the needs of the child, report suspected cases of neglect to CPS, and let the legal system determine if neglect has occurred to the point of serious child endangerment. Questions like whether there should be evidence of harm or endangerment and if the caretaker's indifference or willful intent to harm is beyond the scope of medical and mental health professionals.

An important issue in defining child neglect includes determination of whether an incident of neglect, such as one-time failure of supervision that caused harm to the child vs. a pattern of behavior that indicates chronic neglect by the child's parent or caretaker. CPS personnel have become increasingly responsive to examining an incident of alleged neglect and then looking deeper into the child's history that may reveal a pattern of chronic neglect that may seriously endanger the child's health and safety. The cumulative effects of chronic neglect may be quite serious.

For example, CPS professionals may find, after a single report of neglect, that the child in question rarely has appropriate clothing or necessary medical or dental care. They might find older children are being kept out of school to babysit younger children while the parent(s) work, there might be insufficient food in the house. They might find a serious lack of supervision that has, or can have, dire consequences for the child.

Finally, many studies have linked poverty to an increased risk of child neglect. Most impoverished families do not neglect their children. Among those that do, the following stressors and challenges of poverty play significant roles in chronic neglect:

  • Unemployment
  • Single parenting
  • Housing unavailability and frequent moves
  • Living in high-risk areas of larger cities
  • Parent(s) involvement in criminal activities
  • Household over-crowding
  • Limited access to necessary medical and dental care
  • Lack of health insurance for children of the home
  • Exposure to environmental hazards such as living in a dangerous neighborhood or near an illegal, toxic methamphetamine "lab," a home with exposed electrical wiring, lead paint, or unsecured doors and windows
Public assistance is available for families with inadequate food, shelter and clothing. If a parent does not take advantage of this assistance, CPS considers this omission as neglectful towards the children.

In addition to poverty, neglect must also be considered if a parent or caretaker is emotionally unstable, mentally impaired, or whose religious or cultural beliefs include the refusal of charity.

Child neglect is a preventable condition. To remedy neglect, parents and caretakers can be empowered to work with CPS personnel in providing a safe and nurturing environment for children. Unlike physical, sexual or emotional maltreatment, neglect is rarely pathological but is a social issue that can be resolved in the best interests of the child.
Child Abuse Detection, Reporting and Treatment > Chapter 6 - Signs of Neglect
Page Last Modified On: September 6, 2014, 10:03 PM