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“Child neglect has existed throughout the centuries. The nature of child neglect is affected by economic, social, political and cultural factors, e.g. as the economic situation gets worse, we see an increase in child neglect; in times of political and social change families are very stressed and we see an increase in child neglect; marking a child's face is seen in one culture as part of a child's tribal in heritage whereas it would be considered abusive by another culture group.
Child neglect is a very emotional subject and therefore it is important that we be guided by knowledge and understanding and not only by feelings. we need to be aware of the difference between what we disapprove of and what is really harmful to the child — this is very difficult.”

From: Gannon, B. & Beukes, K (1996) An Orientation to Child Youth Care. Cape Town: NACCW


Two definitions of neglect follow:

"Child neglect occurs when the expectations of parenthood that are dominant in our culture are not met."

"From a legal perspective child neglect connotes a parent's conduct, usually thought of in terms of passive behaviour, that results in the failure to provide for the child's needs as defined by the preferred values of the community."

Note that these definitions include cultural and legal elements. The following areas of abuse and neglect have been identified:
Physical abuse
Common indications are bruises, weals, burns, fractures of limbs, brain and eye injuries, internal injuries, poisoning, drowning. Also, neglect, including a failure to meet the child's basic needs for food, warmth and comfort. An unpredictable and chaotic environment. Failure to thrive.

Emotional deprivation
Some indications are coldness and indifference, with alack of commitment to the child. There is disinterest in the child's affection needs. There are often excessive demands for advanced performance, with critical hostile attitudes towards failure, and cruel punishments.

Sexual abuse
This frequently includes incest and rape — more common than previously expected.

The above factors are often interlinked. The child's total environment is affected, and we speak of an "abusive or neglectful environment."

From: Gannon, B. & Beukes, K (1996) An Orientation to Child Youth Care. Cape Town: NACCW


The Parents of Neglected and Abused Children
We often ask the question: Why does one parent abuse and neglect his or her child when another does not? It appears that most parents who abuse or neglect their children have been abused and neglected themselves.

Studies indicate that many abusive parents have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • They were abused themselves or subjected to over-harsh discipline;

  • Many had experienced early separation from their own parents.

  • They had a basic mistrust/inability to trust;

  • They show an inability to form deep emotional relationships;

  • They married in adolescence, often to a partner with similar problems;

  • They became parents at an early age;

  • Many abusive parents come from one-parent families or step families;

  • There are many marital problems and often many children in the family;

  • These families are typically isolated, and there is often mental illness and depression in these families.

Socio—economic background
The following are very common phenomena, and often they occur together in multi-problem families.

  • Overcrowded housing;

  • Large families;

  • Poverty, low income;

  • Low educational qualification of parents;

  • Unemployment;

  • Low occupational status of parents combined with patterns of criminality, generalised violence, large families impulsive aggression.

Children’s problems
Children react in a variety of ways to being reared in an abusive environment.The children and young people you work with maybe affected in any of the following ways:

  • Lack of basic trust;

  • Lack of self-confidence and self-esteem;

  • Feelings of guilt and ‘badness’;

  • Having unfulfilled yearnings for affection;

  • Being unable to see others’ needs;

  • Impulsive behaviour;

  • Selfishness and self-righteous attitudes;

  • Withdrawal and isolation from social contacts.

Cognitive problems may include:

  • May not attain his full intellectual potential;

  • Has trouble understanding basic cause and effect; Problems with logical think-lag;

  • Confused thought processes;

  • Difficulty in abstract thinking.

Developmental problems include:

  • May not express himself well;

  • Poor physical co-ordination

  • Poor social development;

Psychological and behavioural problems:

  • Poor conscience development: may not show normal anxiety following aggressive or cruel behaviour;

  • Poor impulse control: relies on others to provide external controls on behaviour;

  • Short attention span;

  • Self-esteem is low, with an inability to gain satisfaction from tasks well done;

  • Has difficulty in having fun;

  • Lacks trust in others: demands attention but lacks depth in relationships;

  • Emotionally dull; has difficulty recognising feelings; has trouble expressing feelings appropriately, especially anger, sadness and frustration.

Starting work with troubled children
The child care worker learns particular skills to work objectively with such children. This does not mean working coldly or indifferently, but with circumspection and maximum information as to what will build strengths and resources within the child. Your organisation may have considerable material resources, but the child and his family may have to learn to manage their lives with far less, and you have to help them to do that.

Despite the strong feelings of sympathy and concern you may have for these children, or your equally strong feelings of anger at the parents of the children, you need to remember the following:

  • As a child care worker you can never replace the child’s parent

  • Your task includes not only caring for the child but supporting and strengthening the child’s relationship with his parents.

  • Approximately 80% of the children in care will return to their parents before they turn 18 or after that birthday

  • Never imagine that "Out of sight, out of mind" will help a child forget parents and home. The child may be physically separated from his parents for a time, but emotionally he is still deeply entwined with them.

  • Remember that you are not working with a child but with a family, and that it is difficult to make progress with a child if the parents are not also included both in your consideration and in the treatment plan. This remains one of the greatest challenges in child and youth care practice.

The English psychiatrist Eva Frommer reminds us that for children in care, both function and development have been impaired. That is, there are immediate problems and blocks to be tackled to restore adequate function, so that development can be set on its course again.

A basic principle of life is that we need to be constantly growing or developing. If you are not growing you are, in fact, declining; there is no such thing as just standing still. This principle is very important in child care. Workers need to be well informed on the subject of child development; and the programme in the agency or organisation should always be designed in such a way that it actively promotes physical, social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth in the children.

From: Gannon, B. & Beukes, K (1996) An Orientation to Child Youth Care. Cape Town: NACCW

Readings available on this site:

Neglect: back page news?
Attention deficit, physical and sexual child abuse grab all the headlines. But what you may not realize is that neglect can be worse. Deborah Blum writing in
Mother Jones

The neglect we tolerate


Journal of child and youth care Vol. 6 No.3
Practical Guidelines for Child Care Providers In Working with Abused Children
      Narviar Cathcart Barker

Abstract: Every three seconds a child is abused. As these numbers continue to escalate, care providers are faced with the enormous responsibility of caring for, identifying, and intervening on behalf of the abused child. The task of defining child abuse and child neglect is often a difficult one. The distinction most frequently made between these two terms is whether they are "acts of commission" (physical, emotional, sexual) or "acts of omission" (neglect). This article views the abused child as one who is experiencing neglect as well as physical, emotional and sexual maltreatment. Child care work is draining, exhausting and rewarding — often bringing pain and exhilaration. All too often child care providers lack the skills and training necessary to effectively make a healing difference in an abused child's life. A child care provider needs increased awareness, knowledge and practical skills to work with abused children. this article, therefore, serves as a practical guide for child care providers in working with this population.

Care care in practice Vol.3 No.3 March 1997
"Child Neglect" Participation, Poverty and Distress — The Crucial Coupling"
Peter Beresford

Care care in practice Vol.3 No.3 March 1997
Meeting children's needs — Adequate and inadequate parenting style
Dorota Iwaniec

Care care in practice Vol.3 No.3 March 1997
Fifty years of neglect: An overview
John Fitzgerald

Child care in practice Vol.9 No.1 Jan 2003
Identifying and dealing with emotional abuse and neglect
Dorota Iwaniec  

Abstract: This paper provides a complete account of the author's key note address at the school of Social Work Conference ' From the Margins to the Centre', 17 January 2003. This includes discussion around the difficulties of defining emotional neglect manifests itself on a short-term and long-term basis, and how it can be identified. The presentation also briefly explores how emotional abuse affects child growth, development, welfare and well-being, and goes on to outline the different methods of intervention and treatment relevant to practitioners and managers. 


Child neglect: outcomes in high-risk urban preschoolers.
Background. Limited longitudinal research has been conducted on the impact of neglect on children's health and well-being. There is a need to consider...
From Pediatrics, June 01 2002 by Howard Dubowitz, Mia A. Papas, Maureen M. Black, Raymond H. Starr, Jr
Page(s): 14

Endangered Children: Dependence, Neglect, and Abuse in American History. (Review)
LeRoy Ashby's Endangered Children: Dependence, Neglect, and Abuse in American History, and Priscilla Ferguson Clement's Growing Pains: Children in the...
From Journal of Social History, March 22 1999 by E. Anthony Rotundo
Page(s): 5

Beukes, Kathy and Gannon, Brian (1996). An Orientation to Child & Youth Care. Cape Town: NACCW


National data archive on child abuse and neglect

Child neglect resources

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