Protecting children from neglect

Last updated: 04 Sep 2018
Introduction

Neglect is defined as “the ongoing failure to meet a child’s basic physical and psychological needs” (Department for Education, 2018; Department of Health, 2017; Scottish Government, 2014; All Wales, Child Protection Review Group, 2008).

It is a form of child abuse that can have serious and long-lasting impacts on a child’s life - it can cause serious harm and even death.

The four main types of neglect are:

  • physical neglect: not meeting a child’s basic needs, such as food, clothing or shelter; not supervising a child adequately or providing for their safety
  • educational neglect: not making sure a child receives an education
  • emotional neglect: not meeting a child’s needs for nurture and stimulation, for example by ignoring, humiliating, intimidating or isolating them
  • medical neglect: not providing appropriate health care (including dental care), refusing care or ignoring medical recommendations (Horwath, 2007).

Neglect can happen at any age, sometimes even before a child is born. If a mother has mental health problems or misuses substances during pregnancy, for example, she may neglect her own health and this can damage a baby’s development in the womb (Haynes et al, 2015).

> Find out more about parental substance misuse

> Find out more about parental mental health problems

Impact

Impact of child neglect

"My dad doesn’t feed us. He is never here and I am not allowed to see my mum. Most days I go to school feeling ill because I am not eating or sleeping properly. I often have a headache or bellyache. I wish I could go into care."

Childline counselling session with a girl aged 12 (NSPCC, 2015)

Children can experience neglect at any age – from birth to adolescence. Neglect can cause a range of short- and long-term effects which may vary depending on the age of the child affected.

Brain development

If a baby is malnourished, neural cells can become weak or damaged and this can cause lowered brain function. If a child has little interaction with their caregiver, it can change how emotional and verbal pathways develop and impact their ability to learn.

Physical development

Parents and carers need to help young children to develop gross motor skills. If they are being neglected, or if parents don’t know how to stimulate their child, this process may not happen effectively and the child’s development may be delayed (Horwath, 2013).

Physical health

If a child isn’t given enough food, they will immediately experience hunger and discomfort and may have trouble concentrating. But longer-term malnourishment will also affect their physical health and development.

Having an unhealthy diet can also lead to obesity-related health problems.

Not receiving appropriate medical care can result in poor health, dental decay and in some circumstances, death.

Mental health

Children who have experienced neglect are more likely to experience mental health problems, including:

  • depression
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • dissociative disorders
  • memory impairments
  • panic disorder
  • attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2009).

Relationships and attachment

Children who don’t get the love and care they need may develop problems with attachment – they may struggle to form a strong relationship or bond with their caregiver. This can lead to a child becoming isolated and affect their ability to maintain healthy relationships with others later in life (including their own children).

Risk-taking behaviour

Young people who have experienced neglect may take more risks, such as:

  • running away from home
  • breaking the law
  • abusing drugs or alcohol
  • becoming involved in unhealthy and/or abusive relationships.

Safety

If children and young people aren’t being supervised appropriately by their parents and carers they may have accidents which can cause injury, illness, disfigurement, disability or even death.

Recognising

Recognising child neglect

Signs and indicators

There’s often no single indicator that a child is being neglected. You may notice more than one sign and your concerns might become more frequent if problems are mounting up. This could indicate that a child and their family need support.

Children who are neglected may:

  • live in an unsuitable home environment, for example in a house that isn’t heated throughout winter
  • be left alone for a long time
  • be smelly or dirty
  • wear clothing that hasn’t been washed and/or is inadequate (for example, not having a winter coat)
  • seem particularly hungry, seem not to have eaten breakfast or have no packed lunch/lunch money.

They may suffer from poor health, including:

  • untreated injuries
  • medical and dental issues
  • repeated accidental injuries due to lack of supervision
  • untreated and/or recurring illnesses or infections 
  • long term or recurring skin sores, rashes, flea bites, scabies or ringworm
  • anaemia.

Babies and young children may:

  • have frequent and untreated nappy rash
  • be failing to thrive (not reaching developmental milestones and/or not growing at an appropriate rate for their age).

A child who is experiencing neglect may display unusual behaviour, or their behaviour may change. You may notice or become aware that a child:

  • has poor language, communication or social skills
  • withdraws suddenly or seems depressed
  • appears anxious
  • becomes clingy 
  • is aggressive
  • displays obsessive behaviour
  • shows signs of self-harm
  • is particularly tired
  • finds it hard to concentrate or participate in activities
  • has changes in eating habits
  • misses school 
  • starts using drugs or alcohol
  • isn’t brought to medical appointments such as vaccinations or check-ups.

Risk and vulnerability factors

Any child can suffer neglect, but research shows that some children are more vulnerable including thos who:

  • have a disability
  • are born prematurely or with a low birth weight
  • have complex health needs
  • are in care
  • are seeking asylum.

may be at higher risk of experiencing neglect.

> Find out more about children in care

> Find out more about safeguarding d/Deaf and disabled children

All families come under pressure from time to time. Although many parents are able to provide loving care for their children during difficult periods, increased or continued stress can affect how well a parent can look after their child.

Research shows that parents with a low income, or living in poorer neighbourhoods, are more likely to feel chronically stressed than other parents (Jütte et al, 2014); and parents who are facing complex problems such as domestic abuse or substance misuse can struggle to meet their children’s needs (Haynes et al, 2015).

If parents are feeling particularly isolated, this can make it harder for them to ask for help and increases the risk of child abuse or neglect (Jütte et al, 2014).

Responding

Responding to child neglect

Reporting

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice. 
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in. 
  • Contact the police.

Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

Recording concerns

Neglect is a long-term pattern of behaviour. Adults who are concerned that a child’s needs are not being met should record individual incidents to build up an overview of the child’s lived experience. These records should be shared with other agencies as appropriate and used to decide what support a child and their family need.

Assessing neglect

Assessment tools can help practitioners get a clear picture of how well parents are able to look after their children. This helps professionals make timely evidence-based decisions to improve the child’s quality of life.

The NSPCC uses assessment tools in our work with families where neglect may be taking place.

Graded Care Profile 2 (GCP2) helps professionals measure the quality of care a child is receiving. Aspects of family life are measured along a five-point scale, with questions divided into four main areas of care: physical, safety, emotional and developmental. We’ve evaluated GCP2 and found that it’s successful in helping to identify neglect. We’re now supporting other organisations to deliver GCP2 in local areas. 

> Find out more about Graded Care Profile 2 (GCP2) on the NSPCC website

New Orleans Intervention Model helps social workers and judges decide whether a child should stay with their birth family or enter care permanently. Over a 9-15 month period, our practitioners carry out assessments of the child’s relationship with their parents, the child's development and each parent's health and wellbeing. This program is currently being trialled by the Glasgow Infant Family Team (GIFT). 

> Find out more about the New Orleans Intervention Model on the NSPCC website

Prevention

Preventing child neglect

By identifying circumstances that put parents and carers under stress and getting them the right help at the right time, people who work with children can protect them from possible neglect.

Protective factors that can reduce the risks to children’s wellbeing include:

  • a strong social support network for the family
  • income support, benefits and advice
  • good community services and facilities (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011).

Early help

Practitioners have a key role to play in providing early help and empowering parents to care for their families. This includes:

  • developing long-term positive relationships with parents
  • encouraging parents to seek help when problems first emerge
  • talking to a child and their parents and carers to understand what support they need
  • sharing information about a child and their family with relevant agencies
  • identifying which services are best placed to help a family 
  • monitoring a child’s situation
  • providing direct practical and emotional support to a child and/or their parents
  • signposting families to other specialist services where necessary. Successful early intervention can improve the attachment bond a child has with their caregivers, reduce harm and help children form positive relationships in adulthood (Howe, 2011).

NSPCC services that support parents to provide safe and loving care for their families include:

  • Parents Under Pressure™: supports parents who are on a drug or alcohol treatment programme helping them improve their parenting
  • Baby Steps: a perinatal education program (for before birth and just after pregnancy) that supports parents in how to care for their new baby. We’re also supporting other organisations to deliver Baby Steps in local areas
  • Minding the Baby: helps first-time mums develop a positive relationship and secure bond with their baby
  • Domestic Abuse, Recovering Together (DART): helps children and their mothers talk to each other about domestic abuse, learn to communicate and rebuild their relationship. We're also supporting other organisations to deliver DART in local areas
  • Young SMILES: in collaboration with the University of Manchester, Barnardo's and the NHS, this helps families understand their mental health issues and improve their health and wellbeing.

> Find out more about our services on the NSPCC website

Giving children a voice

It’s vital to build safe and trusting relationships with children so they can speak out about any problems they are experiencing. This involves teaching children what neglect is and how they can get help.

 

Legislation and guidance

Across the UK, statutory guidance highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect.

References and resources

References and resources

All Wales Child Protection Review Group (2008) All Wales child protection procedures [Accessed 29/08/2018]

Child Welfare Information Gateway (2009) Understanding the effects of maltreatment on brain development (PDF). Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Cleaver, H., Unell, I. and Aldgate, J. (2011) Children's needs: parenting capacity: child abuse: parental mental illness, learning disability, substance misuse, and domestic violence. 2nd ed. (PDF). London: The Stationery Office.

Department of Health (2017) Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Department of Health.

Haynes, A., et al (2015) Thriving communities: a framework for preventing and intervening early in child neglect. London: NSPCC.

Department for Education (DfE) (2018) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE).

Horwath, J. (2007) Child neglect: identification and assessment. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Horwath, J. (2013) Child neglect: planning and intervention. London: Palgrave.

Howe, D. (2011) Attachment across the lifecourse: a brief introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jütte, S., et al (2014) How safe are our children? 2014. London: NSPCC.

NSPCC (2015) Hurting inside: NSPCC report on the learning from the NSPCC helpline and Childline on neglect. London: NSPCC.

Scottish Government (2014) National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF). Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.

Childline

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or read about neglect on the Childline website. You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Elearning

Our elearning courses will help develop your understanding of how to protect children from neglect and other types of abuse: 

Related resources

Read our neglect: learning from case reviews thematic briefing summarising risk factors and learning for improved practice around neglect.

> See our research and resources on child neglect

Further reading

For further reading about neglect, search the NSPCC Library catalogue using the keywords "child neglect", "emotional neglect" and "neglected children".

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.