Topic 1: Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect—Definitions and Indicators

Topic 1: Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect—Definitions and Indicators

When deciding if you suspect a child is being neglected, it is critical to first determine if the caregiver is unwilling to provide for the child’s care, or if the caregiver is unable to provide care due to circumstances such as poverty or a lack of resources. A referral to community-based resources may be appropriate. “Neglect” means that, despite available resources, a child’s needs are not met.


Legal Definition
Neglect is defined as failing to provide food, clothing, shelter, or health care that is necessary for a child’s health. Almost 50% of Virginia reports are for physical neglect.* This is consistent with national reporting trends mentioned earlier.

*Virginia Department of Social Services On-Line Automated Services Information System (OASIS), 2009.

Operational Definition
Neglect can be defined as a caregiver’s failure to provide for the child’s developmental and related needs. As with physical abuse, neglect involves two things:

1.An omission on the part of the caregiver.
2.An effect upon the child. The effect may be physical, behavioral, emotional, or cognitive/developmental. Virginia recognizes physical neglect, abandonment, and medical neglect.
Examples of Caregiver Neglect
Failure to provide a child with adequate:

Not attending to a child’s medical needs:

•Leaving dental cavities untreated
•Failing to seek medical attention for a serious illness or injury
Abandoning a child

Some Causes of Neglect
Family crisis:

•Job loss
•Serious illness
Chronic and/or intergenerational patterns, such as:

•Chaotic households
•No structure or routines, such as regular
◦meal time
◦homework time
•No spaces in the household set aside specifically for the child
Remember, the consequences to the child must be taken into consideration. For instance, a five-year-old is more likely to experience greater harm from parental failure to provide meals than a twelve-year-old.

Physical Indicators
A child in your class:

•Looks undernourished and is usually hungry
•Is often lethargic, as if the child hasn’t slept well
•Has untreated injuries or maladies, like a badly infected cut or a toothache
•Chronically has injuries that you can attribute to a lack of supervision, including being harmed by others
Behavioral Indicators
Behaviors often associated with neglect include:

•Begging for or stealing food because of persistent hunger
•Noticeably poor hygiene
•Inappropriate dress for the weather
•Accidents and injuries
•Risky adolescent behavior
•Promiscuity, drugs, and delinquency
•Being shunned by peers
•Clinging behavior
•Poor ability to relate to others
Emotional Indicators
Emotional consequences of neglect often include:

•Poor self-esteem
•Attachment difficulties
•Emotional neediness
•Social problems; reduced pro-social behaviors
•Difficulty setting personal boundaries
•Inability to say “no” to inappropriate requests (related to neediness for attention)
•Impaired initiative
Cognitive/Developmental/Academic Indicators
Children who have been neglected may suffer cognitive/developmental consequences that show up as difficulties in school and with academic pursuits, including:

•Excessive absences
•Lack of learned self-discipline
•Inability to apply self to a task
•Poor grades
•Learning difficulties



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