Tusla - Ireland's Child & Family Agency


Child neglect is the most common category of abuse. A distinction can be made between ‘wilful’ neglect and ‘circumstantial’ neglect. ‘Wilful’ neglect would generally incorporate a direct and deliberate deprivation by a parent/carer of a child’s most basic needs, e.g. withdrawal of food, shelter, warmth, clothing, contact with others. ‘Circumstantial’ neglect more often may be due to stress/inability to cope by parents or carers.

Neglect is closely correlated with low socio-economic factors and corresponding physical deprivations. It is also related to parental incapacity due to learning disability, addictions or psychological disturbance.

The neglect of children is ‘usually a passive form of abuse involving omission rather than acts of commission’ (Skuse and Bentovim,1994). It comprises ‘both a lack of physical caretaking and supervision and a failure to fulfil the developmental needs of the child in terms of cognitive stimulation’.

Child neglect should be suspected in cases of:

  • abandonment or desertion;
  • children persistently being left alone without adequate care and supervision;
  • malnourishment, lacking food, inappropriate food or erratic feeding;
  • lack of warmth;
  • lack of adequate clothing;
  • inattention to basic hygiene;
  • lack of protection and exposure to danger, including moral danger or lack of supervision appropriate to the child’s age;
  • persistent failure to attend school;
  • non-organic failure to thrive, i.e. child not gaining weight due not only to malnutrition but also to emotional deprivation;
  • failure to provide adequate care for the child’s medical and developmental problems;
  • exploited, overworked.

Characteristics of neglect

Child neglect is the most frequent category of abuse, both in Ireland and internationally. In addition to being the most frequently reported type of abuse; neglect is also recognised as being the most harmful. Not only does neglect generally last throughout a childhood, it also has long-term consequences into adult life. Children are more likely to die from chronic neglect than from one instance of physical abuse. It is well established that severe neglect in infancy has a serious negative impact on brain development.

Neglect is associated with, but not necessarily caused by, poverty. It is strongly correlated with parental substance misuse, domestic violence and parental mental illness and disability.

Neglect may be categorised into different types (adapted from Dubowitz, 1999):

  • Disorganised/chaotic neglect: This is typically where parenting is inconsistent and is often found in disorganised and crises-prone families. The quality of parenting is inconsistent, with a lack of certainty and routine, often resulting in emergencies regarding accommodation, finances and food. This type of neglect results in attachment disorders, promotes anxiety in children and leads to disruptive and attention-seeking behaviour, with older children proving more difficult to control and discipline. The home may be unsafe from accidental harm, with a high incident of accidents occurring.
  • Depressed or passive neglect: This type of neglect fits the common stereotype and is often characterised by bleak and bare accommodation, without material comfort, and with poor hygiene and little if any social and psychological stimulation. The household will have few toys and those that are there may be broken, dirty or inappropriate for age. Young children will spend long periods in cots, playpens or pushchairs. There is often a lack of food, inadequate bedding and no clean clothes. There can be a sense of hopelessness, coupled with ambivalence about improving the household situation. In such environments, children frequently are absent from school and have poor homework routines. Children subject to these circumstances are at risk of major developmental delay.
  • Chronic deprivation: This is most likely to occur where there is the absence of a key attachment figure. It is most often found in large institutions where infants and children may be physically well cared for, but where there is no opportunity to form an attachment with an individual carer. In these situations, children are dealt with by a range of adults and their needs are seen as part of the demands of a group of children. This form of deprivation will also be associated with poor stimulation and can result in serious developmental delays.

The following points illustrate the consequences of different types of neglect for children:

  • inadequate food – failure to develop;
  • household hazards – accidents;
  • lack of hygiene – health and social problems;
  • lack of attention to health – disease;
  • inadequate mental health care – suicide or delinquency;
  • inadequate emotional care – behaviour and educational;
  • inadequate supervision – risk-taking behaviour;
  • unstable relationship – attachment problems;
  • unstable living conditions – behaviour and anxiety, risk of accidents;
  • exposure to domestic violence – behaviour, physical and mental health;
  • community violence – anti social behaviour.
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