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Neglect is the most common form of child abuse in the UK. Neglect comes in many different forms which we will discuss further throughout this blog post. The Office for National Statistics outlined that neglect was the most common category of child abuse for child protection plans (CPPs) in England, with a total of 25,330 children being placed on a CPP for this reason. Child neglect occurs when the parents or carers fail to meet the fundamental needs of a young child; it is one of the four categories of child abuse recognised in the UK. Neglect can be intentional or inadvertent and there are different reasons why it might occur, which we will delve into further throughout this blog post. With a common misconception that child abuse is only ‘abuse’ if it is violent, it is important to address child neglect and the impact it can have upon a child.
What is Neglect?
The NSPCC defines neglect as, “the ongoing failure to meet a child’s basic needs and the most common form of child abuse. A child might be left hungry or dirty, or without proper clothing, shelter, supervision or health care. This can put children and young people in danger. And it can also have long term effects on their physical and mental wellbeing.”
The type of neglect suffered can be sorted into one of four different categories. However, if a child suffers from one form of neglect there is a much higher likelihood of them also experiencing another form of neglect too. Therefore, there tends to be some overlap and this is worth being aware of.
This is often the easiest one to spot, especially in a childcare setting. Physical neglect is when a parent or carer fails to take care of the child’s basic needs, including providing shelter, food, clothing and keeping the child clean and hygienic.
This can manifest in many different ways. For example, physical neglect can come in the form of failing to provide warm clothes during winter. This is usually seen when a child comes to school without an appropriate coat. However, the opposite is also apparent too…when a child comes to school in warm weather wearing a winter coat and warm clothing. In terms of clothing needs, the key thing to remember is that the clothing must be ‘appropriate’.
Another example of physical neglect might be poor hygiene. You might notice that a child doesn’t seem to be bathed or comes to the setting in dirty clothing. Not only can this make the child uncomfortable, but it can harm the relationships they form with other children.
If a parent fails to keep a child safe, this is also a form of physical neglect. Of course, accidents happen. But parents and carers must be taking precautions to keep their child safe. Leaving young children home alone or allowing them to walk the streets alone are examples of physical neglect.
For school and nursery staff, this is also another one that can become very apparent, very quickly. Children have a legal right to an education and so failing to send the child to school regularly is an example of educational neglect. It is important to note that it isn’t illegal to take the child out of school if the parents/carers are providing an alternative educational provision, such as home-schooling. It is the responsibility of the local council to perform checks on home-schooling parents to ensure that the child is safe and their educational needs are met.
Out of the four types of neglect, this one is arguably the most difficult to spot. Many times only those who are in regular contact with the child/family will note emotional neglect taking place, as one of the key signs is a change in the child’s behaviour. Emotional neglect is when the child’s emotional needs are not being met. Just as children have physical needs, they also have emotional needs. Emotional neglect is categorised as a child failing to receive the nurture and stimulation they need. This might come in the form of ignoring, humiliating, isolating or intimidating. Emotional neglect can have such a significant impact on the child’s development.
Examples of emotional neglect include failing to provide the child with human interaction, possibly by locking them away alone or trying to scare the child. As awful as this sounds, it does happen. Emotional neglect is difficult to prove, especially with young children, as there tends to be no physical evidence.
It is the parents’ responsibility to ensure that a child receives adequate health and dental care. If a parent or carer fails to provide this, it is classed as medical neglect. Examples of this include if a child injures themselves and the parent doesn’t seek treatment for this. Medical neglect may also come in the form of ignoring the advice of medical professionals and refusing vaccinations.
What are the Warning Signs of Neglect?
Neglect can be a tough type of abuse to spot especially as the signs of neglect are not always physical. Remember, if a child shows just one sign of neglect it may not mean that the child is being neglected. This is why it is always important to log and monitor any concerns you might have, no matter how small they might be. This allows you to build up a bigger picture. Let’s take a further look at the signs of neglect you need to be aware of and be on the lookout for in your practice. It is important to also consider that any child can be neglected; it is not always the ones you might consider to be more ‘at risk’. While socioeconomic status might be a factor to be aware of, you need to monitor ALL children in your care.
Signs of Physical Neglect
- Poor appearance and hygiene.
- Being dirty or smelly.
- Unwashed clothes.
- Being hungry or not having money for food.
- Stealing food from other children or asking for more snacks.
- Wearing the wrong type of clothing for the weather.
- Untreated and frequent nappy rashes in children.
- Living in an unstable home environment.
Signs of Educational Neglect
- Being absent from school regularly or for long periods of time.
- Failing to be provided with education out of the school environment if home-schooling.
- Falling behind age-related expectations.
Signs of Emotional Neglect
Signs of Medical Neglect
- Not having vaccinations.
- Being regularly ill/tired.
- Untreated injuries or illnesses.
- Poor dental hygiene.
- Failure to meet age-related expectations (possibly due to missed diagnoses such as hearing or visual impediments).
It is important to also consider that the list does go on and on. Those outlined above are common signs of neglect. The key one to be aware of that can be a symptom of any kind of abuse, not simply neglect, is behavioural changes in the child. For example, becoming withdrawn when they were once very involved and chatty.
Why Does Neglect Happen?
Neglect can happen for many reasons and is not always intentional. Understanding the reasons for neglect can help you to react accordingly to the situation. Again, if you note any signs of abuse, it is important to log your findings in line with the setting/school’s policy. Neglect can happen in many families and it is important not to prejudge a family based on factors such as socioeconomic status, family dynamic, employment status, educational status etc. There are some factors that make certain families/children more susceptible to neglect.
Being around domestic violence is very damaging to a child, even if the abused parent does all that they can to keep the child safe. Failing to remove the child from the situation still classes as neglect as the child is at risk of harm, both emotional and physical neglect, as a result of the domestic violence.
Alcohol and drug abuse
Can lead to neglectful situations. If a parent is intoxicated and unable to take care of their child appropriately, this is neglectful. Substance abuse can also often be a precursor to physical abuse.
Untreated mental illness
Such as depression and anxiety disorders, can prevent parents from being able to look after their children properly. It is so important to note here that mental illness is not something to be scared off or demonised, we are specifically discussing untreated mental illnesses that may cause parents to withdraw from their child, or become quick to anger. Seeking care for the parent can often help reverse this situation.
Lack of parenting skills
Is another key indicator of potentially neglectful situations. Some parents just simply don’t have the knowledge to be good parents. This could be apparent in very young parents, or parents who were neglected themselves as children. It is sometimes assumed that everybody knows how to be a parent, and that is not the case. Parenting classes, support groups and therapy can be great resources for these parents. Neglect isn’t always a choice, it is sometimes simply a lack of knowledge and understanding, but that doesn’t mean it can be left unresolved.
Stress and lack of support
Can also be factors that play into neglectful situations. Parenting is very stressful – I think all parents will agree – but if parents have a stressful job, relationship issues, financial difficulties or any other stress-inducing situations, this can inadvertently lead to neglect. This often appears in the form of emotional neglect as parents are simply too busy to give the child the time they require. In these situations, it is key to point parents in the direction of support agencies to ease their situation.
Of course, some parents do abuse their children purposefully and that cannot be overlooked. However, the aim of this section was to demonstrate that other factors can also lead to neglect, not simply because the parents wish to harm their child, which is a common misconception.
Who is at Risk of Child Neglect?
We’ve already discussed that any child can be neglected and that as childcare and educational professionals, it is important that we keep an open mind regarding all families and simply record and act on our observations of the child. The NSPCC suggested that children who have experienced abuse often have some overlapping factors which make them more vulnerable to neglect. However, just because they are vulnerable to neglect, doesn’t mean that they are, or will be, neglected.
- Domestic abuse situations.
- Parental mental health problems.
- Parental substance misuse.
Other than the factors outlined in the previous section, there are also two other risk factors that may make children more likely to be neglected.
- Deaf and disabled children – Many studies have found that children who are deaf and disabled are more likely to be abused. This is as a result of communication barriers, misunderstanding the signs of abuse, a lack of personal safety and relationship and sex education programmes for disabled children, increased isolation and their dependency upon others. Not only does this make them more likely to be abused, but it also means that the signs of abuse and neglect are harder to spot.
- Looked after children – A LAC is a child who has been in the care of a local authority for more than 24 hours. This could happen for many different reasons and is not always down to neglect or abuse. However, being a LAC does make neglect more likely. This is possibly the result of placement instability, peer violence and abuse, going missing and disrupted relationships.
It is important that those working with children and young people are aware of what factors may increase the likelihood of a child experiencing neglect in order to provide the best care for the children in the setting.
What are the Effects of Child Neglect?
The effects of child neglect are too many to name and depend upon each child and their own situation. However, there are some effects that are more common than others in children who have been neglected. The impact of neglect is not something to be overlooked and often children who suffer from neglect have to live the rest of their lives with the consequences.
Here are some of the possible impacts of child neglect –
Behaviour, Mental Health and Well-Being
- Eating disorders
- Low self-esteem
- Maladaptive personality traits
- Poor self-regulation
- Behavioural problems
- Conduct disorders
- Poor coping skills.
Relational and Social Outcomes
- Poor peer relationships
- Fewer reciprocal relationships
- Insecure attachment style
- Increased risk of bullying
- Increased risk of being a bully
- Poor social understanding and emotional skills
- Poor ability to recognise emotions in others
- Anti-social behaviours
- Poor intimate adult relationships
- Trouble maintaining relationships.
Physical Health Outcomes
- Disrupted brain development
- Height deficits
- Substance abuse
- Substance use disorder
- Physical impacts due to chronic stress
- Risky sexual behaviours
- Poor oral health
- Vision problems
- Kidney, liver and lung disease.
Learning and Development Outcomes
- Lower intelligence
- Poorer cognitive development
- Poorer executive function
- Diminished language and literacy skills
- Lower reading capacity
- Poorer vocabulary
- Poorer academic performance
- Higher special educational needs.
Again, this list isn’t conclusive and children can face many different issues going forward into adulthood as a result of their abuse.
Where Should I Report My Concerns?
The NSPCC outlines this process if a child reveals instances of abuse or neglect to you.
Listen carefully to what they’re saying
- Let them know they’ve done the right thing by telling you
- Tell them it’s not their fault
- Say you’ll take them seriously
- Don’t confront the alleged abuser
- Explain what you’ll do next
- Report what the child has told you as soon as possible.
Your own setting will have a policy for how to log and share any abuse that a child tells you or that you notice yourself. Often this involves filling in a form explaining what you noticed or what the child told you. You should always share your concerns with the safeguarding lead. If in doubt about whether something is report worthy, fill in the form and share with the safeguarding lead. It is better to have logged the information just in case.
With new figures showing that child cruelty and neglect offences have doubled in the past five years, it is more important than ever that adults working with children and young people are knowledgeable about abuse and neglect. All adults responsible for taking care of children should be aware of the signs of abuse and what to do if they see something they are concerned about. Hopefully, this blog has given you lots of information to refresh your knowledge about child neglect as well as address a couple of misconceptions. Remember, it is better to be safe than sorry, so always log anything that causes you to suspect abuse or makes you feel uncomfortable. As childcare and educational professionals, we often have a pretty good radar for when things just don’t seem right. So trust your gut. Follow your setting’s safeguarding policy and always be aware of the children in your care. Changes in behaviour might be subtle, but they are always worth following up on. If in doubt, speak to your safeguarding lead and they should be able to advise you on what steps to take.