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26 October 2018 | Comment | Article by Alan Collins

The 10 causes of child neglect

The recently published NSPCC report “How safe are our children?” highlighted the rise of reported cases of child neglect in Wales.

Neglect has been the most common reason for a child to be on the child protection register (CPR) in Wales. Neglect remains stubbornly high as a concern on the NSPCC report. In 2015/16 it was the sole reason given for 45% of children to be on the CPR in Wales. This is up from 40% of all children on the register in 2014/15.

Neglect is the ongoing failure to meet a child’s needs and is the most common form of child abuse. A child maybe left hungry, dirty, inadequately clothed, provided with poor accommodation, may miss schooling, and lack supervision. He or she may not be thriving, and receive inadequate health care. Neglect can also leave the child vulnerable to other forms of abuse.

There is no single fact which causes child abuse but neglect usually occurs in families where there is a combination of risk factors and often in families who are under pressure and lack support. I have identified what I would say are the 10 causes of child neglect:

  1. Poverty: if the parents do not have enough money to pay the bills, the sad truth is that children are not always the priority that they need to be. Even if families are extremely poor there should always be enough assistance that children should never be neglected as long as their care is made a priority.
  2. Lack of education: Parents may have missed much of their own education having been victims of neglect themselves. They may have no qualifications and so struggle to obtain employment which makes them dependent on “benefits”. Such an existence is a passport to poverty. Parents may also have little knowledge to equip them in raising children. They themselves may be the product of parental neglect, and having missed out on an education, they lack the basic skills to provide a decent home environment.
  3. Serious marital/relationship problems: Children often witness or experience the fallout of their parent’s relationship issues. A messy breakup or divorce can be very time consuming and emotionally draining. This can lead to parents neglecting their children while they look after their own issues. It can effect not just the child’s physical wellbeing but their psychological health too. Their sleep patterns can be adversely effected. Their schooling can be effected too, perhaps because because they are worrying about what is happening at home. On a practical level there may be new partners on the scene, or the breadwinner has departed causing financial turmoil.
  4. Violence between parents/carers: again, children often witness the fallout if not the violence itself, and can be at risk of being recipients too. The effect can be profound both physically and psychologically and can have long term developmental A parent may be emotionally very dependent on an abusive partner and fail to protect a child from abuse or harm. It is neglectful to leave a child in the care of someone you know will harm them.
  5. Lack of support from the extended family: the absence of grandparents, aunts and uncles, can mean that a child’s parent(s) has no back-up. With no one to “baby-sit” or child mind whilst they go shopping, or to work, or to provide support and guidance, parents can sometimes see no alternative but to leave their children to fend for themselves. The beneficial role of family in helping to look after children is immeasurable and, consequentially, its absence is a major factor in neglect cases. The other side of the coin is that some extended families maybe so dysfunctional with a history of child neglect that its members are incapable of providing support. Extended family members may reinforce poor parenting practices.
  6. A lack of knowledge and skills in bringing up children: A parent may themselves be the victim of parental neglect. It will be no surprise to find that they are already on the back foot when it comes to looking after and raising a child themselves. The neglect their experienced may mean they have missed large parts of their education. and so have been deprived of other useful sources of knowledge. They may have missed the opportunity to acquire skills that an education would have equipped them with.
  7. Loneliness and social isolation: The inability to seek support and advice from family and friends inevitably impacts on a parent’s ability to care for their child. The psychological impact of isolation can be profound when faced with the responsibility of raising a child alone, and possibly in difficult circumstances. The impact on the parent could be such to put the child at risk of neglect as a direct consequence.
  8. Unemployment: The lack of a stable, regular, and well-paying job inevitably impacts on a parent’s ability to provide a positive environment to raise children. Low income is associated with poor diet, inadequate housing, and poor health. When a parent loses their job, the loss of self-worth and ability to provide for the family causes a massive psychological impact on a parent that cannot be underestimated.. This in turn can impact on the parent’s capability to look after their child, and so in itself is a risk factor.
  9. Inadequate housing: Having inadequate housing is not conducive to good health, either for the parents or the children. Badly insulated and poorly constructed and maintained properties are often expensive to heat, and to keep clean and dry. They do not provide the conditions for children to thrive. Inadequate houses are often located in areas with histories of anti-social behaviour and crime, and are associated with poverty and the other causes of neglect.
  10. Mental or physical ill health including alcohol and substance misuse: One or both parents may have been in prison, dealing drugs or other criminal activities. Neglectful parents often have underlying anger directed at authority figures, and may try to threaten or intimidate doctors and social workers. The parents may have great trouble forming and maintaining relationship with children.

By its very nature, child abuse is damaging to normal child development. The very persons charged with the care and nurturing of a child, and to whom the child turns for food, love, support, and safety, can cause the child physical and psychological ill-health.

Children who are neglected and abused will often exhibit a wide array of characteristics and behaviours. Most common among these are anger, acting out, depression, anxiety, aggression, bed-wetting, social withdrawal, low self-esteem, and sleep difficulties. At the extreme end, abuse can cause a child to dissociate and develop disorders such as schizophrenia, and personality disorder. Personality disorder is a mental disorder that affects a person’s ability to function in everyday activities such as work, school, and interpersonal relationships. Borderline personality disorder is a frequent diagnosis for children who are victims of abuse or neglect. Symptoms can include paranoia, lack of impulse control, limited range of emotions, and inability to form close and lasting relationships.

The causes of neglect are complex but my analysis has revealed some common themes. For example, poverty, family breakdown, and ill-health tend to be the root causes of some of the other causes on our list. Charles Dickens wrote moving accounts of abject poverty in Victorian times. The stories of hard times, the work house, and children left to defend for themselves seem so foreign to us but we cannot help but be moved by the plight of those children. Dickens was able to portray vividly the effects of unemployment, bereavement, ill-health in the absence of any kind of welfare system that provided any kind of safety net.

Social reformers of the late 19th century did much to draw the country’s attention to child poverty, and governments of all hues over the last 150 years have been legislatively active. The Liberal Government of 1906 laid the foundation stone of the welfare state with national insurance, and the Labour Government forty years later created the welfare state with which we are familiar. An objective was to rid society of poverty and with it child neglect but in 2017 we are facing the reality that it is still very much with us.

Author bio

Alan Collins


Alan Collins is one of the best known and most experienced solicitors in the field of child abuse litigation and has acted in many high profile cases, including the Jimmy Savile and Haut de la Garenne abuse scandals.  Alan has represented interested parties before public inquiries including the Independent Jersey Care Inquiry, and IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse).

Internationally, Alan works in Australia, South East Asia, Uganda, Kenya, and California representing clients in high profile sexual abuse cases. Alan also spoke at the Third Regional Workshop on Justice for Children in East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok hosted by Unicef and HCCH (Hague Conference on Private International Law).

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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