There is much confusion around child neglect. Opponents of the current child welfare system are fond of stating that most children reported to child protective services (CPS) are suffering from neglect, not abuse, that neglect is synonymous with poverty, and therefore that children are commonly being removed from home because of poverty. While neglect is clearly related to poverty, the facts suggest that the removal of children due to poverty alone is rare. To know more about this most common form of maltreatment, it is necessary to collect more specific data on the types of child neglect that are found when a neglect allegation is substantiated. Nevertheless, child welfare must recognize the important role of poverty in promoting child neglect and the role of poverty alleviation programs in child neglect prevention.
A useful way to distinguish between abuse and neglect of children is that abuse is generally an act of commission, while neglect is an act of omission. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, neglect is “commonly defined in state law as the failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety and well-being are threatened with harm.” The most commonly recognized categories of neglect include physical neglect (failure to provide for basic physical needs), medical neglect, inadequate supervision, emotional neglect, and educational neglect. Some states include exemptions for certain types of neglect, like religious exemptions for medical neglect. Twelve states and the District of Columbia exclude financial ability to provide for a child from the definition of neglect.
How true are common statements about neglect?
A number of statements about neglect are are frequently made in support of various views and proposals. These are discussed below.
The national child welfare system was established to address abuse, not neglect. This is absolutely true. The discovery of “battered child syndrome” by Henry Kempe at the University of Colorado led to the passage of child protection laws in every state within a few years. On the federal level, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which established the federal role in supporting and monitoring these systems, was also focused on abuse rather than neglect. According to an oft-quoted book about the history of CAPTA, Democrats feared that President Nixon might veto CAPTA if it was viewed as an anti-poverty program, so they took pains to reiterate that child maltreatment could happen to anybody, regardless of socioeconomic status. As a result, the responses to child maltreatment focused on mental health and parent education services rather than economic supports. In his essay, Poverty, Neglect and Cultural Denial, child welfare commentator Dee Wilson recalls that when he began working as a CPS social worker in the 1970’s, all his training focused on battered children. Yet, in his work he encountered battered babies and toddlers maybe “once or twice annually out of 100 to 150 assigned cases.” Instead, he received both in Colorado and later in Washington “a steady diet of reports of child neglect and, to a lesser extent, reports of excessive punishment of children with minor injuries that did not require medical attention.” Academic literature has contributed to the problem by failing to distinguish between abuse and neglect.
Neglect is the main reason for children’s involvement with child welfare. This is also a true statement. According to the latest data collected from the states and published in Child Maltreatment 2019, three-quarters (74.9 percent) of the 656,000 children found to be victims of maltreatment in 2019, were found to be neglected, 17.5 percent were physically abused, 9.3 percent were sexually abused, and 6.8 percent were “other.” Some children were found to be victims of both neglect and another maltreatment type. These percentages should not be viewed as an exact representation of the relative importance of different types of maltreatment. As Font and Maguire-Jack point out, investigators do not have to substantiate every allegation to justify intervention. So If there is more than one type of maltreatment in the home, investigators may not substantiate all of the different types. Thus a child found to be a victim of neglect only may actually have suffered abuse as well. Comparison of substantiation data with other sources, as shown in Font and Maguire-Jack’s table listed below. suggests that “substantiations are likely to grossly understate all forms of child maltreatment, but especially physical abuse.” So neglect does appear to be more common than abuse as a reason for child welfare involvement, but abuse may be be present in a higher fraction of cases than the percentages indicate.
Child neglect is strongly related to poverty. This is also true. Research demonstrates that poverty is a major risk factor for child neglect. According to the most recent National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, children in low socioeconomic status households experienced maltreatment at five times the rate of other children. Studies have also demonstrated that providing economic supports for families (through programs like tax credits, passing on child support, food assistance, and child care subsidies) have direct effects on child maltreatment. We do not know exactly how poverty affects child neglect but in an excellent article in a journal issue devoted to child maltreatment Feely et al provide a useful way to think about it. They posit that the inverse of neglect is what they call “safe and consistent care or SCC,” which they define as “to provide safe, consistent supervision and constantly provide for children’s basic needs.” As they describe, time and money are two core resources a family needs to provide SCC. For a poor parent, it may be very difficult to provide acceptable levels of time and money simultaneously. So a poor parent might have to choose between going to work and letting the children be unsupervised or inappropriately supervised, or losing their job and letting their children go hungry.
Most parents found to be neglectful are actually just poor. The confusion of poverty with neglect is a trope that is cited again and again by those who advocate restricting government intervention in maltreating families. For example, Jerry Millner and David Keller, the former Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau and his special assistant, have written that It’s time to stop confusing poverty with neglect. They claim that many children become involved with child welfare only because their parents are poor. For example, children might be taken into care because a parent gets evicted or cannot afford childcare and leaves them alone. Despite the popularity of this belief, the evidence does not support it. It is clear that most poor parents do not neglect their children. They find a way to provide safe and consistent care, whether it means extensive research on community resources, creative use of existing supports, or delaying the next birth until adequate resources are available to care for the children they already have. Dee Wilson argues based on his decades of experience in child welfare that “a large percentage of neglect cases which receive post-investigation services, or which result in foster placement, involve a combination of economic deprivation and psychological affliction, beginning with mood disorders such as depression and PTSD,” which often lead to substance abuse as a method of self-medication.
The most serious cases of neglect are often chronic. Chronic child neglect can be defined as “a parent or caregiver’s ongoing, serious pattern of deprivation of a child’s basic physical, developmental and/or emotional needs for healthy growth and development.” Chronic neglect by a single mother often opens the door for physical or sexual abuse by her boyfriend. Children who have experienced chronic neglect may suffer “serious cognitive and social deficits because of the….lack of responsive parent-to-child interaction that is essential for healthy child development.” Chronic neglect can have effects similar to trauma, such as difficulties with emotion regulation.
Many child neglect reports are frivolous and unnecessary, cluttering up the system and making it harder to identify serious maltreatment. Many critics of mandatory reporting and CPS cite a study estimating that 37.4 percent of all U.S. children (and 53 percent of Black children) experience a CPS investigation by the age of 18. Some argue that many of these reports are the consequence of a racist system that ensnares too many poor and Black families. Some are supporting bills to end anonymous mandatory reporting in New York and Texas. Another, smaller set of reports has drawn attention, as described by Naomi Schaefer Riley in her article, Reforming Child Neglect Laws. These reports target stable, functional middle class families that have chosen to give their children more independence than many other parents in their geographic and demographic stratum. The case of the Meitiv children, who were picked up by police while walking a mile to their home in Silver Spring, Maryland and became the subject of not one but two CPS cases, drew publicity around the country.
It is clear that some reports coming into hotlines do not warrant investigation, but we do not know what proportion. Annual data submitted by states and compiled in the Child Maltreatment 2019 report shows that that 45.5 percent of referrals (for all kinds of maltreatment) in 2019 were screened out. And of all children receiving an investigation or alternative response, only 18.9 percent were found to be victims of maltreatment. However, research suggests that the likelihood of another report, a substantiated report, or a foster care placement is the same for a child who is the subject of a substantiated versus an unsubstantiated report. Chances are that many of the children with unsubstantiated reports were previously the subject of substantiated reports, or will be the subject of such reports later. Moreover, as Font and Maguire-Jack point out, “it seems unavoidable that some number of non-maltreated children will be reported to CPS if mandatory reporters are acting appropriately.” After all, they are told that they do not need to be sure the maltreatment is occurring, but to leave that decision to CPS. Changing that guidance, in my opinion, would be dangerous to children.
Should neglect be treated differently from abuse?
Even if neglect is not “just poverty,” some commentators argue that it should be treated differently from abuse. Two former directors of large child welfare systems, Tom Morton and Jess McDonald, argue that because child protective services were designed around abuse rather than neglect, they were patterned after the criminal justice system and treat all maltreatment as antisocial behavior. Morton and McDonald argue that because neglect is an act of omission rather than commission, it should be treated differently, The response to neglect should occur in a “public health framework” outside the current child protection system.
I do not agree that we need a separate system to deal with neglect. As I have discussed, many neglected children are also victims of abuse, whether or not it is substantiated by authorities, and neglect by one caregiver can pave the way for abuse by another. We already have a criminal justice system that addresses criminal abuse and neglect separately from the child welfare system. While the effect may seem punitive, the goal of CPS is to make children safe, not punish parents. Both abuse and neglect make a child unsafe, and the first mission of child welfare is to ensure child safety. Splitting this mission into two is probably not be the best way to promote children’s safety.
Even if we do not need a separate system to deal with neglect, we need to recognize the importance of anti-poverty strategies to help families provide safe and consistent care and prevent child neglect. Prevention has become a major priority of child welfare leaders and thinkers, so this is a good time to talk about incorporating poverty alleviation into child maltreatment prevention. In this new vision, as Feely et al propose and as I have discussed in an earlier post, child maltreatment (especially neglect) prevention should not be the responsibility of child welfare agencies alone. This responsibility should be shared by all the agencies responsible for alleviating poverty. The new initiatives proposed by the Biden Administration for child tax credits, universal pre-kindergarten and expanded child care assistance should be a good beginning.
Is it time to drop the term “neglect”?
In an article in The Imprint, Rebecca Masterson of Gen Justice argues correctly that the term “child neglect” has become almost meaningless because it is used so broadly and so deceptively as a symptom of poverty. Masterson argues that “neglect” needs to be replaced by more specific terms, such as abandonment or refusal of medical care. I do not agree that the term neglect should be dropped. Just as “child abuse” is an umbrella term that includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse, “neglect” has value as an umbrella term that refers to acts of omission that harm children, in contrast to abuse, which is an act of commission. It makes sense to have these umbrella categories.
But the umbrella categories of “abuse” and “neglect” should not be put in the same list of categories as the specific acts (or lack thereof) underneath the umbrellas. Unfortunately, state and local data systems often list “neglect” as a category along with other more specific terms for types of neglect. This results in bizarre analyses where “neglect” is often described as the most common category of child maltreatment–more common than its subcategories–as if anything else is possible! Just as social workers do not have to check off “abuse” as well as “physical abuse,” in their agency database, they should not be asked to check off “neglect,” as well as specific types of neglect. In order to fix this problem everywhere, and to make sure we have comparable data from all states, the federal government should mandate that all states use the same subcategories of abuse and neglect, and that “abuse” and “neglect” not be among the specific categories.
In devising these alternative categories, we also must be careful to avoid confounding neglect with conditions that may cause it, such as substance abuse and mental illness. These are contributing factors that should be noted in databases and shared with the federal government but are not in themselves forms of neglect. And indeed, in some jurisdictions, like the District of Columbia, substance abuse is not considered neglect unless it is considered to impair parenting.
Child neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment, yet it received little attention in the first decades of the modern child welfare system. It took a long time for child welfare scholars and leaders to recognize the importance of neglect. Unfortunately now that they have recognized its importance, many leaders are using this new knowledge in order to support their proposals to upend child welfare in ways that may be harmful to neglected children. This misuse of the concept of neglect can be addressed by requiring that child welfare agencies collect uniform data on the types of neglect that are being found. That being said, it is important for child welfare leaders to understand the importance of poverty alleviation strategies in preventing maltreatment in general and to recognize that this job does not belong to the child welfare system.