What is Child Neglect?

Information retrieved from American Society for the Positive Care of Children (SPCC). (2017). Child Abuse Statistics in the U.S. Retrieved on December 21, 2017 from https://americanspcc.org/neglect/

Neglect is the negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child by a parent or caretaker under circumstances indicating harm or threatened harm to the child’s health, safety or welfare. The term includes both acts of commission and omissions on the part of the responsible person. The California Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act defines two categories of physical neglect, severe neglect and general neglect.

Severe neglect means the negligent failure of a parent or caretaker to protect the child from severe malnutrition or medically diagnosed non-organic failure to thrive. It also means those situations of neglect where the parent or caretaker willfully causes or permits the person or health of the child to be placed in a situation such that his or her person or health is endangered. This includes the intentional failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care.

General neglect means the negligent failure of a parent or caretaker to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision where no physical injury to the child has occurred.

An example of inadequate supervision is when parents leave their children unsupervised during the hours when the children are out of school. These parents are often unable to arrange childcare services to meet their needs. Although these parents may not regard themselves as “neglecting their children”, leaving young children without supervision may constitute general neglect. Children left in these circumstances may also be particularly vulnerable to accidents, injuries, or crime. Because these parents don’t see any wrongdoing, this is a very complicated area that is subject to controversy regarding the age when children should be left alone, societal and community responsibilities to provide resources, and governmental requirements.

Prenatal neglect is maternal substance (drug or alcohol) abuse coupled with significant risk factors that indicate the parent’s inability to provide the child with adequate care.

Psycho-Social Failure to Thrive

Infants or young children who are much smaller than would be expected at a particular age can present a difficult diagnostic problem for physicians. After excluding those infants who are small because they were small at birth, there remains a large group of infants with low weights and perhaps short lengths and small head circumferences. Some of these children are small because of failure to meet their nutritional needs and/or failure to meet their emotional needs. These children may also demonstrate delayed development and abnormal behavior. Some of the small children, however, do have hidden medical problems. Hospitalization may be required to screen for significant medical illness and, more important, to see if the child responds to adequate nutrition and a nurturing environment with a rapid weight gain and more appropriate behavior. Evaluation is more than weighting and measuring a baby. Children who suffer neglect may also receive sporadic disconnected medical care and are likely only to be examined in emergency rooms. They may have no ongoing measurement of development except as noted by caretakers. Growth charts compare the child to other children noting percentile size in head, body length and weight. Feeding failure for whatever reason will generally damage weight first, length second, and head circumference third, so it may be helpful to observe the caretaker’s feedings habits. In fact, the best environment to observe this is in the home. Pediatric expertise is vital to access such changes but growth charts should be kept on all infants and toddlers who may be suffering neglect.

Failure to document physical growth and other markers of child development may prevent an accurate diagnosis and make it impossible to protect a child or provide useful intervention.

If left untreated, the physical and/or emotional health of the child may be endangered, and emotional disorders, school problems, retardation, and other problems may result.

Indications of Neglect

Neglect may be suspected if any of the following conditions exist:

  • The child is lacking adequate medical or dental care.
  • The child is often sleepy or hungry.
  • The child is often dirty, demonstrates poor personal hygiene, or is inadequately dressed for weather conditions.
  • The child is depressed, withdrawn or apathetic; exhibits antisocial or destructive behavior, shows exaggerated fearfulness; or suffers from substance abuse, or speech, eating, or habit disorders (biting, rocking, whining).
  • There is evidence of poor supervision (repeated falls down stairs; repeated ingestion of harmful substances; a child cared for by another child); the child is left alone in the home, or unsupervised under any circumstance (left in car, street).
  • The conditions in the home are unsanitary (garbage, animal, or human excrement); the home lacks heating or plumbing; there are fire hazards or other unsafe home conditions; the sleeping arrangements are cold, dirty, or otherwise inadequate.
  • The nutritional quality of food in the home is poor; meals are not prepared; refrigerator or cupboards contain spoiled food.

While some of these conditions may exist in any home environment for a variety of different reasons, e.g., poverty, welfare reform, and limitations of entitlement programs, it is the extreme or persistent presence of these factors that indicate someĀ  degree of neglect.

Disarray and an untidy home do not necessarily mean the home is unfit. Extreme conditions resulting in an “unfit home” constitute neglect that may justify protective custody and dependency proceedings under Welfare and Institutions Code section 300, as well as criminal neglect charges.

Leave a Reply