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Child neglect is defined as any confirmed or suspected egregious act or omission by a parent or other caregiver that deprives a child of basic age-appropriate needs and thereby results, or has reasonable potential to result, in physical or psychological harm. Younger children are neglected most, and more girls suffer from neglect than boys.

Child neglect encompasses abandonment; lack of appropriate supervision; failure to attend to necessary emotional or psychological needs; and failure to provide necessary education, medical care, nourishment, shelter, and/or clothing.

Neglect is usually typified by an ongoing pattern of inadequate care that may be readily observed by individuals in close contact with a child. School personnel, for example, may detect indicators of neglect such as poor hygiene, low weight gain, inadequate medical care, or frequent absences.

According to United States Department of Health and Human Services tracking, reported rates of neglect in the U.S. are higher than those for other types of child maltreatment. In 2016, reports indicated that there were at least 672,000 maltreated children in the U.S., and 7 children per 1,000 were reported victims of neglect, compared with 1.7 per 1,000 for physical abuse, 0.8 for sexual abuse, and 0.5 for psychological or emotional abuse. While reported rates of other types of child maltreatment have declined significantly in recent years, rates of neglect have not. From 1990 to 2016, rates of substantiated physical abuse declined by 40 percent and rates of substantiated sexual abuse declined by 62 percent, while rates of substantiated neglect fell by just 8 percent. Among all maltreated children, the proportion with reported neglect increased from 49 percent in 1990 to 75 percent in 2016, while the proportion with reported sexual abuse declined from 17 to 9 percent and the proportion with reported physical abuse declined from 27 to 18 percent. For these reasons, advocates believe neglect merits more attention from researchers, legislators, and clinicians. One challenge is that, because it is an act of omission, neglect can often be difficult to identify.


A number of neglected children present as suffering from medical conditions, failure to thrive, or malnutrition, which in severe cases can be life-threatening. Observable signs include dirty skin; offensive body odor; unwashed, uncombed hair; undersized, oversized, or unclean clothing; clothing inappropriate for the weather; and frequent lack of supervision.

School personnel are advised to consider the possibility of neglect when a child:

  • Is frequently absent.
  • 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.

Neglect may also be considered when a parent or caregiver presents as:

  • Indifferent to the child.
  • Apathetic or depressed.
  • Irrational.
  • Abusing alcohol or other drugs.

Physical neglect includes the refusal to seek necessary medical care; child abandonment, or the desertion of a child without arranging for care or supervision; inadequate supervision; the expulsion of a child from the home; and failing to provide for a child's safety or physical needs. Other forms of physical neglect include inadequate nutrition, clothing, or hygiene; conspicuous inattention to avoidable hazards in the home; and reckless disregard of a child's safety and welfare, such as driving with a child while intoxicated or 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 does not receive schooling; the refusal to obtain or allow recommended remedial education services; or the refusal to follow through with treatment for a diagnosed learning disorder or other special education need without reasonable cause.

Emotional neglect includes inadequate nurturing and affection; spousal abuse in a child's presence; allowing a child to use drugs or alcohol; the refusal, or delay in providing, needed psychological care; and encouraging or allowing maladaptive behavior such as chronic delinquency or assault.

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

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Many parents who neglect children do not do so intentionally. Researchers suggest that neglectful parenting may emerge from a caregiver's own developmental history or psychological well-being, the adult's limited coping strategies or resources, or the particular characteristics or dynamics of a family.

Many neglectful parents, for example, were themselves neglected or abused as children. Very young or inexperienced parents, on the other hand, might not fully understand how to care for a baby or what can reasonably be expected of children at different stages of development. Circumstances that place families under extraordinary stress, such as poverty, divorce, sickness, or disability, sometimes lead to the neglect or mistreatment of children. And parents who abuse alcohol or other drugs are more likely to abuse or neglect their children.


Understanding and addressing neglect requires an awareness of complex, interrelated social problems, including but not limited to poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Interventions to treat children and families affected by neglect require thorough assessments and customized treatment. Parent education classes, substance-abuse treatment programs, respite care services, community center outreach, and informed policies from government agencies may help to protect children by addressing the circumstances that place families at higher risk for abuse and neglect.

National Institutes of Health—National Library of Medicine
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Children and Families and Office of Child Abuse and Neglect.
Acts of Omission: An Overview of Child Neglect, by The United States Children's Bureau
Last updated: 02/22/2019