Child Neglect

A neglected child may be malnourished, always sick, or never at school. Neglect comes in different forms such as physical and emotional, and more girls suffer than boys, with younger children neglected most.


Child neglect is defined as a type of maltreatment related 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. Once children are in 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: physical, emotional, educational, and medical.

More children suffer from neglect in the United States than from physical and sexual abuse combined. The US Department of Health and Human Services found that in 2007 there were 794,000 victims of child maltreatment in the US, of those victims 59% were victims of neglect. Some researchers have proposed 5 different types of neglect: physical neglect, emotional neglect, medical neglect, mental health neglect, and educational neglect. States may code any maltreatment type that does not fall into one of the main categories—physical abuse, neglect, medical neglect, sexual abuse, and psychological or emotional maltreatment—as "other."

In spite of this, neglect has received significantly less attention than physical and sexual abuse by practitioners, researchers, and the media. One explanation may be that neglect is so difficult to identify. Neglect often is an act of omission. But neglecting children's needs can be just as injurious as striking out at them.

Additional Information

For 2003, 47.3 percent of child victims were boys, and 50.7 percent of the victims were girls. The youngest children had the highest rate of victimization. The rate of child victimization of the age group of birth to 3 years was 16.5 per 1,000 children. The victimization rate of children in the age group of 4-7 years was 13.5 per 1,000 children. Nearly three-quarters of child victims (73.1 percent) ages birth to 3 years were neglected compared with 52.7 percent of victims ages 16 years and older.


A number of neglected children present as suffering from medical conditions, failure to thrive or malnutrition, which in severe forms may be life-threatening. More observable signs include the following: dirty skin; offensive body odor; unwashed, uncombed hair; tattered, under or oversize and unclean clothing; clothing that is inappropriate to weather or situation; frequent lack of supervision.

Signs of Neglect

Consider the possibility of neglect when the child…

  • Is frequently absent from school
  • Steals or begs for food or money
  • Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations or glasses
  • Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor
  • Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather
  • Abuses alcohol or other drugs
  • States that there is no one at home to provide care

Consider the possibility of neglect when the parent or other adult caregiver…

  • Appears to be indifferent to the child
  • Seems apathetic or depressed
  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner
  • Is abusing alcohol or other drugs

Physical neglect includes the refusal of seeking necessary health care, child abandonment, which is the desertion of a child without arranging for reasonable care or supervision, inadequate supervision, the rejection of a child leading to expulsion from the home and failing to provide for the child's safety as well as his or her physical and emotional needs. Other physical neglect includes inadequate nutrition, clothing, or hygiene; conspicuous inattention to avoidable hazards in the home; and other forms of reckless disregard of the child's safety and welfare (e.g., driving with the child while intoxicated, leaving a young child in a car unattended).

Educational neglect occurs when a child is allowed to engage in chronic truancy, or is of mandatory school age but not receiving schooling. Additionally, another form is the refusal to allow or failure to obtain recommended remedial education services or neglect in obtaining or following through with treatment for a child's diagnosed learning disorder or other special education need without reasonable cause.

Emotional neglect includes inadequate nurturing and affection, spousal abuse in the child's presence, allowing a child to use drugs or alcohol, refusal or delay in providing needed psychological care as well as the encouragement or permitting of other maladaptive behavior (e.g., chronic delinquency, severe assault) under circumstances where the parent or caregiver has reason to be aware of the existence and seriousness of the problem but does not intervene.

Medical neglect is the failure to provide for appropriate health care for a child. The child may exhibit signs of poor health, such as fatigue, infected cuts, and constant itching or scratching of skin.


Most parents don't hurt or neglect their children intentionally. Many were themselves abused or neglected. Very young or inexperienced parents might not know how to take care of their babies or what they can reasonably expect from children at different stages of development. Circumstances that place families under extraordinary stress—for instance, poverty, divorce, sickness, disability—sometimes take their toll in the maltreatment of children. Parents who abuse alcohol or other drugs are more likely to abuse or neglect their children.

Researchers propose that factors of parenting stem from the parents' own developmental history and psychological well-being, characteristics of the family and child, and coping strategies and resources.


Parent education, community centers, respite care services, and substance-abuse treatment programs help to protect children by addressing circumstances that place families at risk for child abuse and neglect.

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 abuse.

Understanding neglect requires an awareness of related social problems such as poverty, substance abuse and domestic violence. Interventions to treat children and families affected by neglect require thorough assessments and customized treatment.


Last reviewed 03/05/2018