This quarter at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, I am taking a class called “Family Violence.” In this class, one of the most disturbing types of abuse that I have learned about is the neglect of children. Hard to detect and even harder to prove, it is the most common form of family violence between senior citizens who live with their families. In 1998 there were an estimated 903,000 victims of child maltreatment, and more than half (53 percent) suffered from neglect.
In an independent study, the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse estimated that 3,140,000 children were reported for all types of maltreatment in 1994, and child neglect accounted for approximately 45% of reported cases and 49% of substantiated cases. Also, in 1994, the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse estimated that 1,271 children died as a result of maltreatment of which 42% were attributed to neglect.
Child neglect is as specific a finding as child abuse, though it is more common and often more devastating. Despite this, cases of child neglect are sometimes investigated and documented poorly, simply because the definition of neglect is not clear to the investigator, who then may not be sure what precisely to look for. A definition of neglect allows investigation, collection of evidence, documentation, and court
The cornerstone of neglect is the concept of parental duty. Parents have duties because, until many years after birth, our offspring cannot look after their own basic biological needs and survival, unlike most animals, which can take care of themselves shortly after birth. Our children cannot gather food, protect themselves from the elements or from predators, or recognize danger. Thus, in the performance of this duty, parents do for children what the children cannot yet do for themselves. Parents thereby hugely decrease the chances of children’s injury or early death.
The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System report defines neglect as “a type of maltreatment that refers to the failure to provide needed, age-appropriate care.” Unlike physical and sexual abuse, neglect is usually typified by an ongoing pattern of inadequate care and is readily observed by individuals in close contact with the child. Physicians, nurses, day-care personnel, relatives, and neighbors are frequently the ones to suspect and report neglected infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children. Once children are in school, school personnel often notice indicators of child neglect such as poor hygiene, poor weight gain, inadequate medical care, or frequent absences from school. Professionals have defined four types of neglect, being physical, emotional, educational, and medical neglect.
Physical neglect accounts for the majority of cases of maltreatment. It is estimated that 8 of every 1,000 children experience physical neglect. The definition includes the refusal of or extreme delay in seeking necessary health care, child abandonment, inadequate supervision, rejection of a child
leading to expulsion from the home, and failing to adequately provide for the child’s safety and physical and emotional needs. Physical neglect can severely impact a child’s development by causing failure to thrive; malnutrition; serious illnesses; physical harm in the form of cuts, bruises, and burns due to lack of supervision; and a lifetime of low self-esteem.
Educational neglect occurs when a child is allowed to engage in chronic truancy, is of mandatory school age, but not enrolled in school or receiving school training, and/or is not receiving needed special educational training. Educational neglect can lead to underachievement in acquiring necessary basic skills, dropping out of school, and/or continually disruptive behavior.
Emotional neglect includes such actions as chronic or extreme spousal abuse in the child’s presence, allowing a child to use drugs or alcohol, refusal or failure to provide needed psychological care, constantly putting the child down, and withholding of affection. This pattern of behavior can lead to poor self-image, alcohol or drug abuse, destructive behavior, and even suicide. Severe neglect of infants can result in the infant failing to grow and thrive and may even lead to infant death. This called the failure to thrive syndrome.
Medical neglect is the failure to provide for appropriate health care for a child although financially able to do so. In 1995, 3% of the substantiated cases of child maltreatment dealt with medical neglect. In some cases, a parent or other caretaker will withhold traditional medical care during the practice of certain religious beliefs. These cases generally do not fall under the definition of medical neglect, however, some states will obtain a court order forcing medical treatment of a child in order to save the child’s life or prevent life-threatening injury resulting from lack of treatment.
Medical neglect can result in poor overall health and compounded medical problems.
Although neglect is highly correlated with poverty, there is a distinction to be made between a caregiver’s ability to provide the needed care due to the lack of financial resources, illness, or cultural norms, and a caregiver’s knowing reluctance and/or refusal to provide care. Either way, children may be found to be in neglectful situations and in need of services even though the parent may not be intentionally neglectful. Whereas poverty may limit a parent’s resources to adequately provide necessities for the child, services may be offered to assist families in providing for their children.
If you suspect child neglect is occurring, the first step to take toward protecting the child is to report it to the local child protective agency, usually either social services or human services, in your county or state. Professionals who work with children are required by law to report suspicion of neglect or abuse. Furthermore, there are 20 states that require every citizen who suspects abuse or neglect to report it. Reasonable suspicion based on objective evidence, which could be firsthand observation or hearing statements made by a parent or child, is all that is needed to report.
Child abuse prevention is usually categorized into primary, secondary or tertiary prevention. Primary prevention can be characterized as attempts to influence community attitudes to child maltreatment – that is, community education. Primary prevention strategies also take the form of personal safety programs. Secondary prevention is aimed at support programs for at-risk populations, such as families with substance-abusing
caregivers. Tertiary prevention is managed by the various state child protection services, and is directed at preventing the re-abuse of children.
Child neglect is something that it hard to detect, and it is nearly impossible to get a conviction without solid evidence. Signs of neglect can quickly be erased through proper nourishment and a hard day of cleaning in someone’s household, which can ruin a court case. Most cases rely on the testimony of the person who reported the neglect and/or the social worker who worked on the case.
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