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Child Maltreatment - Neglect

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Aug 31, 2022.

What is child neglect?

Child neglect is a form of mistreatment that occurs when a person does not provide needed care to a child. Child neglect includes not giving a child basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, proper education, and guidance. It may also include abandoning or not providing supervision for the child. It can also include lack of medical care, such as immunizations, treatments, or giving the wrong amount of medicine.

What increases a child's risk for neglect?

  • Poor, violent, or crowded living conditions
  • Age 6 years or younger
  • Learning or memory problems, a long-term medical condition, or special needs
  • Not having relatives or friends who can take care of the child
  • Care from a single or teenaged parent, or someone who lacks knowledge about the normal development of a child
  • Being around someone who drinks alcohol or uses illegal drugs, or is under stress
  • Being around someone who has a history of physical, sexual, or other abuse
  • Being around someone who has a personality disorder, depression, or another mental illness

What are the signs and symptoms of child neglect?

  • Frequent absences from school
  • Begging or stealing
  • Hunger or dehydration
  • Depression or a worsening health condition, such as a rash
  • Lack of dental care or immunizations
  • Poor hygiene, such as wearing dirty clothes or having body odor, lice, or untreated wounds
  • Weight loss or poor growth
  • Fear of strangers, or clinging onto strangers or healthcare providers

How is child neglect diagnosed?

Healthcare providers who specialize in child abuse will examine the child's body. They will ask about other health conditions and if the child's vaccinations are current. They may want to talk to the child or anyone who cares for the child to get more information about the neglect. The healthcare providers may ask if the child has been eating, taking medicines, and given clothing. They may also want to know who is neglecting the child, and how long the neglect has been happening.

  • Blood and urine tests may show signs of infection, malnutrition, or dehydration. The tests may also be used to get information about the child's overall health.
  • X-ray or CT scan pictures may show any broken or displaced bones, or internal injuries. The child may be given contrast liquid to help injuries show up better. Tell the healthcare provider if the child has ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.

How is child neglect treated?

A child who has been neglected may be placed in a daycare center or foster home. Services may be offered to help the child feel safe and cared for. Treatment may also include any of the following:

  • Counseling may help the child feel less scared, depressed, or anxious. The child's healthcare provider may suggest that the child see a counselor to help him or her with how he or she feels.
  • Wound care or surgery may be needed to treat injuries, wounds, or other health conditions.

What are the risks of child neglect?

If the child is placed in a foster home or care, it may be hard to be away from family or friends. Counseling may be emotionally difficult and painful. The child may have changes in behavior and school performance. The child may develop other serious problems. These include running away from home, alcohol or drug use, depression, and problems with self-esteem, moods, and relationships. The child may have thoughts of harming himself or herself or others.

How can I care for a child victim of neglect?

  • Let the child rest as needed. Tell the child's healthcare provider if the child has trouble sleeping.
  • Give the child healthy foods to eat. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Ask if the child needs to be on a special diet. A dietitian may talk to you, the child, family members, or other people who care for the child about helping the child get the right nutrition.
  • Report suspected or known child neglect. It may be hard to report neglect of children, but it is very important. Healthcare providers can help the child if he or she is at risk for or is a victim of neglect. Healthcare providers are required by law to report suspected child neglect. The child may need to leave the current living situation and be placed in foster care to provide needed care.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) for any of the following:

  • The child feels like harming himself or herself or someone else.
  • The child has trouble breathing, chest pain, or a fast heartbeat.

When should I call the child's doctor?

  • The child feels that he or she cannot cope with the neglect, or recovery from it.
  • The child has problems eating or gaining weight.
  • The child is sad or depressed most of the time.
  • The child has trouble sleeping.
  • The child has new signs and symptoms.
  • You have questions or concerns about the child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.