Child neglect is the most prevalent form of child maltreatment in the US. According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), approximately 899,000 children in the US who were victims of abuse and neglect in 2005, 62.8% suffered from neglect alone. Child neglect is a failure by parents or caregivers to provide for a child’s basic physical, educational, and emotional needs. It is difficult to define because it varies with the age and development of the child; therefore, it is problematic to determine the extent of the problem. Risk factors for abuse include preexisting mental or physical illness, poverty, familial stress, substance abuse by parents or caregivers. Physicians, nurses, daycare personnel, relatives, and neighbors are generally the ones to suspect and report neglect; however, they may be the culprits too. Often times, signs of child neglect may include inadequate medical or custodial care.
Physical neglect encompasses the majority of neglect cases and it involves the parent/caretaker not granting the child basic necessities such as food, clothing, medical care, and shelter. By depriving the child of these essential things, his or her physical health, well being, psychological growth, and development is jeopardized. Failure to thrive, malnutrition, serious illness, physical injury due to lack of supervision, and low self-esteem are some of the byproducts of physical neglect. As an unfortunate example, infants are sometimes mistakenly left behind in cars or vans by their caregivers when the outside temperature is very hot, resulting in heat stroke or death to these infants.
Regarding child abuse, medical neglect is the failure to deliver necessary healthcare for a child thereby endangering the child’s well being. Situations involving medical neglect include when a parent refuses medical care for a child in an emergency or when a parent does not follow recommendations for a child with a treatable chronic disease or disability. Medical neglect often correlates with poverty; however, there is a difference between an inability to provide the appropriate care due to finances or cultural norms and being purposefully neglectful.
If one suspects child neglect, the first step is to report the incident to local child protective services agency in the county or state. The majority of states have a child abuse hotline or you can use the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD). Professionals involved with children have a duty to report reasonable suspicion of abuse and neglect. Reasonable suspicion is based on objective evidence which includes firsthand observation or statements made by a parent or child. Symptoms of neglect include: difficulties in school, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, signs of physical injury, rebellious behavior, sleep disorders, and other vague physical complaints.