Child Neglect Essay

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Child neglect is the most prevalent form of child maltreatment, and is distinct from child abuse. This essay focuses on the definition of child neglect; its incidence and prevalence, including co-occurrence of neglect with other forms of maltreatment and violence; and its precursors and consequences. The entry concludes with a brief overview of evidence-based interventions for child neglect.


Child neglect results from an act of omission of adequate care for a child by a parenting person. Neglect stands in contrast to other forms of interpersonal violence, which are acts of commission. Physical neglect consists of failing to provide shelter, food, and clothing. Education and medical neglect results from the parent’s failure to access these essential services for children. In emotional neglect, the parent fails to provide basic attention to a child’s emotional needs. Supervisory neglect can occur throughout a child’s development and includes lack of care and attention to an infant or lack of supervision for an adolescent.

State statutes define child neglect and must meet the federal child maltreatment standard. While adhering to the basic definition provided above, states’ definitions vary. For example, in some states, harsh corporeal punishment is defined as neglect. Other states discriminate between failure to provide adequate care due to financial inability and failure to provide care due to financial inability (not neglect).

What constitutes neglectful behavior is not always clear. Cultures influence standards of parenting in matters such as when a child is old enough to stay home unsupervised, and what is considered appropriate health and educational attention. Historically, only Western nations have focused on defining child neglect, but in the last decade there have been efforts to define global standards for adequate care of children.

Incidence And Prevalence

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires states to provide data on reported child maltreatment, investigations, and investigation outcomes to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). The latest report was for 2005. In addition, the U.S. Children’s Bureau has mounted periodic National Incidence Studies (NIS). The last such study reported data from 1993 to 1994. Both studies are relevant because they employ different standards of child maltreatment. The NCANDS is based on data from child maltreatment reports; the NIS surveyed children services professionals for their observations of maltreatment of children, whether or not it was officially reported. These reports provide the basis for estimates of incidence and prevalence of child neglect.

Sixty-three percent of all children reported for maltreatment in 2005 were found to be neglected. Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse accounted for 33% of substantiated maltreatment in the same time period. Other or unclassified causes accounted for the remainder. The 2005 incidence rate for child neglect was 8.1 per 1,000 children. Thirty-five percent of child neglect victims are under 4 years of age and 22% are older than 12. Black and Hispanic families are overrepresented in all forms of reported child maltreatment. Blacks account for 24% of known neglect cases, Hispanics for 18%, and Whites for 48%. The NIS and the NCANDS studies show that incidence rates of child neglect are increasing. The NIS found that most children who are neglected are not reported to Child Protective Services. Child neglect often co-occurs with other forms of maltreatment. Child neglect can be life threatening and accounted for more than 40% of the 1,117 child fatalities due to maltreatment in 2005.

Precursors And Aftereffects Of Child Neglect

Neglect is strongly associated with poverty, with unemployment, and with single-parent-headed families with more than three children. Studies have also associated neglect with a demoralized, discouraged parental worldview. Neglect typically occurs across generations; neglectful parents have often been neglected themselves and do not know how to nurture their children. Birth parents are perpetrators of child neglect in the vast majority of cases.

A constellation of factors create risk for child neglect, including the following: (a) situation factors related to lack of economic resources and to high levels of stress; (b) family factors such as conflict, spousal violence, and social isolation; (c) parent factors such as lack of parenting empathy and skills, adverse parental childhood histories, and mental health and addiction problems; and (d) child factors such as special health and mental health needs and the temperament of the child. Neglectful families are likely to have limited adaptive capacities and environmental resources. Studies of neglectful family interaction show low amounts of any interaction, and a low ratio of positive to coercive or negative interaction among family members. The newest studies suggest that early parent–child interaction has traceable effects on brain development and that poor parenting has a profoundly negative effect on the child’s emotional and cognitive development.

The consequences of child neglect can be life threatening. Examples include nonorganic failure to thrive, unintentional injuries such as poisonings and drowning, and adolescent high-risk behaviors. Neglected children typically show poor school achievement, behavior and emotional regulation problems, and low self-esteem. Growing evidence suggests that neglect increases risk for adolescent and adult delinquency and relational and mental health problems.

Prevention And Treatment

Practitioners view child neglect as one of the most difficult forms of child maltreatment to change; thus, there is agreement that the emphasis should be on prevention and family supports. While a single standard of prevention and intervention does not exist, there is growing consensus on elements to reduce child neglect risk.

Successful programs contain the following elements: (a) environmental support and enrichment through social services that serve as a safety net in preventing the deleterious effects of extreme poverty (these include affordable, high-quality daycare, health care, preschool, early developmental assessment with intensive service follow-up, and after-school programs for older children and adolescents); (b) services to multiple social systems—to the child, parent, and family as needed; (c) intense emotionand empathy building experiences between the parent and child (neuroscience and attachment theory provide the bases for this promising component of prevention); (d) opportunities to build social relationships through neighborhood-based group services and inclusion of extended family in intervention; (e) an optimistic and strengths-based orientation; and (f) compatibility with the family’s ethnic culture.


  1. Caliber Associates. (2003). Emerging practices in the prevention of child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office on Child Abuse and Neglect. Retrieved May 27, 2017, from
  2. Crosson-Tower, C. (2007). Understanding child abuse and neglect (7th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  3. Gaudiosi, J. (2007). Child maltreatment: 2005. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau. Retrieved May 27, 2017, from
  4. Sedlak, A. J., & Broadhurst, D. D. (1996). Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-3). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. Retrieved May 27, 2017, from

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