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What is Child Neglect?

Updated on September 30, 2008


Most of us cannot imagine abusing or neglecting our children. However, child abuse and neglect are very real problems. While each State defines child abuse and neglect in it’s own way, there are minimum standards set by Federal law. Child neglect often is the result of a failure to act in a certain way given a set of circumstances. Before we can understand neglect as a specific form of child maltreatment, we first need a basic foundation of the definition of child abuse and neglect in general.

Photo: freeparking,Flickr
Photo: freeparking,Flickr

Federal Definition of Child Abuse and Child Neglect

Federal law defines child abuse and neglect as, at minimum:

  • Any recent ACT or FAILURE TO ACT on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or
  • An ACT or FAILURE TO ACT that presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

When we talk about child abuse and child neglect, it usually relates to harm to a child caused by parents or other caregivers and not harm caused by other people, such as acquaintances or strangers.

What Are the Major Types of Child Abuse and Neglect?

Most States recognize four major types of maltreatment:

  • physical abuse
  • neglect
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse

Many states include the following:

  • abandonment
  • parental substance abuse

These often occur in combination.

Specifically What is Child Neglect?

Neglect is defined as the failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs. Child neglect can be:

  • Physical (failure to provide food or shelter, or appropriate supervision)
  • Medical (failure to provide medical or mental health treatment)
  • Educational (failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
  • Emotional (inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)

While they all sound awful, these situations do not always mean a child is neglected. Cultural values, the standards of care in the community, and poverty may be contributing factors. The whole picture needs to be taken into account when evaluating a particular case. Many instances of child neglect may indicate the family is in need of information or assistance.

When a family fails to use information and resources, and the child’s health or safety is at risk, child welfare intervention may be required. However, many States provide an exception to the definition of neglect for parents who do not seek medical care for their children due to religious beliefs that prohibit medical intervention.

A hot topic in the area of child neglect is the potential for educational neglect of children who are home schooled.

This information has been adapted from the Child Welfare Information Gateway.


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  • ghostwritermsc07 profile image

    ghostwritermsc07 8 years ago from Spokane, Wa

    Thank you for taking the time to define each of these. I recently came across a case of neglect but was unsure about whether it was indeed neglect until reading this.

  • Aya Katz profile image

    Aya Katz 9 years ago from The Ozarks

    So, nobody is worried about the abuses within the social welfare system? Does anybody remember what happened to Logan Marr?

  • mattferry profile image

    mattferry 9 years ago from California

    I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. show them all the beauty they possed inside, give them a sense of pride. " the song says it all"

  • childcen profile image

    childcen 9 years ago from New Zealand

    i am seeing more and more cases of child neglect and its pretty scary that the stats are rising. What is even scarier is the cases of abuse are happening in even well to do families.

  • qlcoach profile image

    Gary Eby 9 years ago from Cave Junction, Oregon

    Excellent material on child abuse and neglect. I started my career in Social Work in 1970 as a Fostercare and Protective Services worker. I can related deeply to these issues. Unfortunately for many complicated reasons, we still have a long way to go to improve our child welfare protective system. Feel free to see how I continue to try to help others in new ways. Sincerely: Gary Eby, author and therapist.

  • KT pdx profile image

    KT pdx 9 years ago from Vancouver, WA, USA

    Thank you, Lela, for this article. I hope that parents will read it, and take the infomation to heart. Let there be no more kids who grew up like I did. :'(

    If you think a child is being abused or neglected, Child Services has an anonymous tip line. They follow up on each and every phone call, but will not give out information on who called.

  • Aya Katz profile image

    Aya Katz 9 years ago from The Ozarks

    Lela, thanks for educating everyone about this issue. Personally , I think the locals should make their own rules on child welfare. When the Federal government intervenes, it often doesn't take into account differing community standards.

    Sometimes perfectly attentive parents get penalized for having different cultural values, as you mentioned. Where I live there are Amish people whose way of life includes separating their children from the normal community. These are good people, but in many ways they don't meet the standard of the majority.