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In recent years there have been important academic and theoretical developments around child neglect, including the nature of the phenomenon, causes and consequences, and the professional approaches most appropriate in neglect cases. This research paper begins with an analysis of how awareness of neglect has grown, before examining the complexity of definitional issues. It goes on to explore the ways in which knowledge in relation to neglect has been constructed, examining the major constructions and contextual issues that have emerged. Key contextual factors including the relationship between neglect and poverty and the gendered nature of neglect and policy responses are discussed.
- The Neglect and Reemergence of Neglect
- Defining Neglect
- Constructing Child Neglect
- A Preoccupation with Dirt and Disorder
- Measuring and Proving Neglect
- ‘Good Enough’ and ‘Bad Enough’ Parenting
- Contextual Factors
- Gender and Neglect
- Characteristics of Poor Parenting
- Drug and Alcohol Misuse and Other ‘Risk’ Factors
- Family ‘Dysfunction’
- Intergenerational Neglect
- Attachment Theory and Mother-Blaming
- Poverty and Neglect
- Beyond Simple Causation
- Social Neglect and Poverty
Child neglect has become an increasingly important issue in recent years with academic and theoretical developments, covering the nature of the phenomenon, causes and consequences, and the professional responses in neglect cases. This research paper begins with a discussion of the ‘neglect of neglect’ and then analyzes how awareness of neglect has grown, before examining the complexity of definitional issues. It then explores how knowledge in relation to neglect has been constructed, examining the major constructions and contextual issues that have emerged. Key contextual factors, including the relationship between neglect and poverty and gendered nature of neglect and policy responses are discussed.
The Neglect and Reemergence of Neglect
The ‘neglect of neglect’ in the child maltreatment field has been noted by researchers over a significant period (Dubowitz, 2007; Gabarino and Collins, 1999) with Coohey (1995: p. 885) concluding that “the overwhelming focus of research and theory building has been on sexual abuse, physical abuse or child maltreatment.” Stone (1998) suggests that neglect is poorly understood by practitioners theoretically and that training for practitioners in this area is lacking. The reasons underlying the failure of some parents to provide adequate care for children remain significantly underresearched (Hildyard and Wolfe, 2007).
Coupled with these gaps in research and theory is a growing awareness since the 1970s about the extent to which classbased assumptions can influence practice, leading, according to Scourfield (2003: p. 109), to “a reluctance to bring families into the child protection system” on grounds of being “poor, shabby and dirty.” Stone (1998: p. 88) suggests that the relatively low profile of neglect might be “due to the fact that neglect is a long-term developmental issue rather than a crisis.” Further, physical abuse may be more tangible and visible, commanding more attention from professionals than neglect, which is viewed as an act of omission (Garbarino and Collins, 1999).
Several studies have highlighted the ‘neglect of neglect’ at a practice level. Stone (1998) found that neglect cases would be given low priority and were filtered out of the system at various thresholds until a specific incident of sexual or physical abuse arose in the same case. Similarly, Swift (1995: p. 78) suggests that “because neglect is usually characterized as being of long duration, such a case may easily slip to the bottom of a worker’s list of action priorities until a child is clearly put at risk.”
The ‘neglect of neglect’ is increasingly being challenged through recognition of its increased incidence and evidence of its adverse effects on children. Neglect has become the largest category of child protection registration in the UK (Scourfield, 2003; Turney, 2000) and accounts for the highest percentage of maltreatment in the US and Canada (Sedlak et al., 2010; Ruiz-Casares et al., 2012). In the Swedish context, Kaunitz et al.’s study revealed that for children aged 0–12, 62% of referrals concerned neglect (Cocozza and Hort, 2011).
Research evidence strongly supports the view that child neglect can lead to poor outcomes for children in both the short term and long term (Daniel and Taylor, 2006). Neglect can impact upon the child’s emotional, physical and cognitive, psychological and behavioral development (Glaser and Prior, 2002). Deleterious effects include anxiety and low self-esteem, problematic behavior, educational underachievement, and adverse impacts upon peer and social relationships (Glaser and Prior, 2002). The long-term impact on children may be influenced by the severity, chronicity, and developmental stage at which the neglect occurs (Hildyard and Wolfe, 2002).
Definitions of neglect are varied and contested, making investigation of professional responses to neglect complex. Daniel et al. (2011: p. 13) argue that neglect can be defined both broadly and narrowly, highlighting a distinction between “neglect as a concept denoting the experience of a child whose developmental needs are not being met and ‘neglect’ as an operational, legislative or policy label.” Hence, definitions vary depending on purpose, for example, criminal proceedings, determining eligibility for services, and investigating allegations and research (Daniel et al., 2011). When defining neglect then as a “category for compulsory action,” definitions tend to be narrower (Daniel et al., 2011: p. 15). In the UK, national guidance in the shape of Working Together defines neglect as:
the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development.
(HM Government, 2013)
In the UK, legally neglect is embedded within The Children Act’s (1989: section 31) definition of significant harm: “the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer significant harm; and that the harm or likelihood of harm is attributable to a lack of adequate parental care or control.” Common to most definitions of neglect is the notion of parental omission of care, failure to provide for (Garbarino and Collins, 1999; Swift, 1995) or protect the child (CIS, 2008). Most definitions address the failure to meet a child’s basic needs (Garbarino and Collins, 1999). In Australia there is no uniform legal definition of neglect, although eight aspects of neglect are covered in different states and territories (Lawrence and Irving, 2004). In other countries, for example, China, there has been no attempt to develop a legal definition of maltreatment (Liao et al., 2011).
In the UK, applying the Working Together definition of neglect in practice becomes problematic, particularly given a lack of guidance on the application of the broad statement and explanation of key terms (Turney, 2000). Legally informed definitions assert a dichotomous categorization of neglect, in which the child is not neglected (Polansky et al., 1981). Although the legal definition of neglect appears ‘concrete’ (Daniel et al., 2011), in practice it is recognized that neglect is a “complex and multifaceted phenomenon” (Stone, 1998: p. 90) and “notoriously difficult to define” (Turney, 2000: p. 249). Moreover, in China, where no legal definition exists there is no consensus among Chinese researchers regarding how neglect should be defined and conceptualized (Liao et al., 2011).
Critiques of narrow definitions of neglect have highlighted the focus on parental omission rather than on children’s unmet needs (Dubowitz et al., 1993; 2007). Dubowitz et al. (1993) argue that legal definitions of neglect tend to be narrow and carry the implicit assumption of parental responsibility, while failing to recognize the complexity of the phenomenon. They argue that the focus of concern should ‘be on children and their unmet needs, rather than on the presence or absence of parental (or caregiver) behaviors.’ Narrow definitions may fail to take into account the dynamic nature of children’s age and developmental levels, which influences the level and type of care they require (Zuravin, 2001). Crucially, by defining neglect more broadly, Dubowitz et al. (1993) argue that neglect should be conceptualized within an ecological framework, recognizing the wider social context in which children are neglected. At policy level in the UK, the Framework for the Assessment in Need and their Families (DoH, 2000) promoted a broader understanding of neglect taking an ecological approach that positions the child within the family, wider community, and social factors. Although in England the government’s revised statutory guidance Working Together (HM Government, 2013) has superseded that which originally accompanied the Assessment Framework in 2000, the model itself is retained in the new guidance. A systems approach allows the practitioner to understand the interplay of biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors in child neglect. Further, it is child centered and rooted in child development specifically through the incorporation of the dimension of the ‘child’s developmental needs.’ In countries with a ‘family service’ model, including Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway (Skivenes, 2011), child maltreatment is understood in terms of the wider context and circumstances in which a child is cared for including psychological, familial, and socioeconomic problems (Cocozza and Hort, 2011).
Neglect can be defined variously in terms of parental characteristics or behavior or the impact of both of these factors upon the child (Daniel et al., 2011). Parental care, and lack of it, clearly exists on a continuum, ranging from excellent to grossly inadequate (Dubowitz, 2007). Given that neglect exists on a continuum, Dubowitz (2007: p. 604) suggests that it is difficult to identify when “exactly the inadequacy of care becomes problematic” with practitioners relying on measures such as ‘faltering growth’ or the notion of developmental milestones.
Research highlights the heterogeneity of neglect as a phenomenon. For example, Zuravin (2001) identifies several subtypes of neglect with different operational definitions. Determining neglect “rests on an assessment of frequency of the omission as well as the likelihood and severity of harm” (Dubowitz et al., 1993: p. 18). Some omissions in care are not likely to be harmful unless they are more frequent (Dubowitz et al., 1993). Zuravin (2001: p. 50) suggests that certain types of neglect require chronicity, for example, in discussing educational neglect she suggests that “a child must be absent from school for a minimum of twenty days without legitimate reason”. A further complexity concerns whether definitions should include intentionality, whether neglect is the result of a desire to harm, of ‘ignorance’ or of circumstances such as poverty (Zuravin, 2001). Liao et al. (2011: p. 1710) suggest that in Chinese culture neglect is understood as being “unintentional and is generally attributed to ignorance.” A broader definition of neglect widens the responsibility from parental blame to include wider social and institutional responsibility.
From this brief review of the existing literature on defining neglect, it is evident that wide-ranging categorical and conceptual differences exist within and between definitions. Such differences are likely to both reflect and influence how neglect is dealt with by social workers in practice and the way in which service users understand the basis of professional involvement in their lives.
Constructing Child Neglect
Several authors, mainly within the UK and US, have explored the constructions and discourses given precedence within social work practice relating to neglect.
A Preoccupation with Dirt and Disorder
In his study of child neglect responses in a social work team, Scourfield (2003) found that professional discourses drew upon selected messages from research. He cites the influence of findings from the Bridge Child Care Consultancy (1995) and Child Protection: Messages from the Research (DoH, 1995). The former emphasizes physical neglect and the servicing of the child’s body, “their neglected child is dirty and smelly” (Scourfield, 2003: p. 111), while the latter highlights the emotional impact of parenting styles characterized as “low warmth, high criticism” (DoH, 1995: p 19). Interestingly, the practical construction of neglect was “more influenced by the discourse of the servicing of the child’s body” (Scourfield, 2003: p. 112). Swift (1995) found that physical neglect predominated both in relation to casework records and in social workers’ talk about neglect. Similarly, in considering factors of concern in a chronic case scenario, Horwath (2007) found that 135 professionals focused on lack of supervision and physical harm with only six considering lack of stimulation and nine poor nurturing.
Swift (1995) and Scourfield (2003) indicate that there exists a professional preoccupation with dirt and disorder, both in relation to the child’s appearance and home conditions. In Scourfield’s (2003) study deciding whether a home was tidy and clean was “judged against tacit standards,” involving levels of order and cleanliness (Scourfield, 2003: p. 113). Additionally, adequate feeding was “another abiding concern about the servicing of children’s bodies” (Scourfield, 2003: p. 116). The emphasis in practice on physical neglect is noteworthy, given that there is also some evidence that professionals recognize the damaging effects of emotional neglect. For example, Horwath (2007) found that 75% of respondents agreed that a high criticism, low-warmth environment is damaging for a child.
Measuring and Proving Neglect
The dominant focus on physical neglect in practice may be explained through its being observable and visible: “you can see and smell dirt, check a child’s weight” (Scourfield, 2003: p. 126). In contrast, emotional neglect is considered less easy to evidence, viewed as less tangible, more subjective, not as visible, and more difficult to observe developmental delays (Casey, 2013). Several studies have indicated that physical neglect dominates as it is easier to prove in court and in legal terms. The visibility of physical neglect is well placed in a legal context embedded in objectivity, ‘facts,’ and rational evidence (Casey, 2013). At the same time, “harm to children through neglect is difficult to establish in legal terms because it is incremental, often invisible and not directly observable as an outcome of parental behaviour” (Swift, 1995: p. 84). In a context in which professionals are under considerable pressure to ‘get it right,’ it is not surprising that “dirty, hungry, ill-clad children are bodies of evidence … concrete proof of parental failure to clean, feed and clothe” (Scourfield, 2003: p. 123). Moreover, this focus on physical needs is embedded within a climate preoccupied with risk (Scourfield, 2003) and “may reflect the incident driven system which has dominated child welfare practice for over twenty years” (Horwath, 2007: p. 1291). This focus on physical neglect and needs marginalizes the child’s other needs (Horwath, 2007) and presents a partial view of children’s welfare (Scourfield, 2003).
‘Good Enough’ and ‘Bad Enough’ Parenting
Given the complexities of defining neglect, the point at which care becomes inadequate is difficult to ascertain. In Rodriguez’s (2002) study, investigating abuse-reporting decisions of professionals on abuse scenarios, accuracy was lowest for child neglect. Identifying neglect involves professional judgment of whether parenting is of an adequate standard (Lawrence and Irving, 2004). In Horwath’s study, 25% of professionals believed staff in social work departments accept lower standards of parenting than other professionals (Horwath, 2007). Alongside differences between professional groups, the notion of ‘good enough’ parenting is also contested between social workers. In the Finnish context, the criteria for child maltreatment, varies between areas, teams, and officers as a result of “different organizational cultures, communities and … norms and expectations about appropriate childhood and parenthood” (Pösö, 2011: p. 116). In Casey’s (2013) study, standards were viewed as dependent on experience, with newly qualified workers adopting higher standards of care to warrant action. Accepting lower standards of parenting may result when social workers work to the rule of optimism (Daniel, 2000). While social workers may accept relatively low standards of care, thresholds into services may be high. In this context, professionals make decisions as to whether care is bad enough to warrant services. Very high thresholds can cause cases to be closed or deregistered from child protection services too rapidly, resulting in situations of repeated registration, deregistration, and reregistration (Casey, 2013). Defining neglect becomes part of service rationing strategies, with levels of ‘good enough’ care determined by available resources (Casey, 2013).
Gender and Neglect
Mothers are “overwhelmingly identified as perpetrators of neglect” (Daniel and Taylor, 2001: p. 24). The question of responsibility for the maltreatment of children is “a key gender controversy” (Scourfield, 2003: p. 23) and studies have identified that gendered constructions of women are mainstream organizing principles (Scourfield, 2003). As Turney (2000: p. 50) argues, care and nurturing are identified with the feminine, in the West: “the association between caring and mothering. has particular salience for a consideration of child neglect.”
Social workers’ holding of women responsible (Strega et al., 2008) in cases of neglect builds on and reproduces traditional psychoanalytical positions and attachment theory, which are explored below, specifically around the ‘good enough’ mother. This association between femininity and caring has implications for understanding neglect with any breakdown in care being attributed to women (Daniel and Taylor, 2006). As Daniel and Taylor (2006: p. 427) elaborate, the theoretical underpinning of the majority of research on neglect is that: “neglect is an indication of a lack of nurturing; nurturing is carried out by mothers; therefore, when nurturing is absent the problem must be a problem of mothering.”
Research and theory on child neglect is influenced by the assumption of women as primary caregivers (Daniel and Taylor, 2006). When fathers are included, research “tends to focus on the father’s relationship with the mother and his presence or absence in the home” (Daniel and Taylor, 2006: p. 428). In Gaudin et al. (1996) study, fathers had limited involvement in child rearing and supporting the mother. The mother then becomes a key variable in writing about child neglect, in terms of role rejection, lack of nurturing, knowledge, immaturity, and poor nurturing (Swift, 1995). Swift (1995: p. 89) suggests that “many researchers are concerned with establishing the main causal variables of neglect, they also contribute to the definition of the problem by framing it in personal and intra-familial terms.”
Characteristics of Poor Parenting
A range of studies have investigated the characteristics of neglectful parents, with the focus mainly on mothers’ personalities, caring roles, attitudes, relationships, and attachment histories (Coohey, 1995; Hildyard and Wolfe, 2007; Polansky et al., 1981). Egeland and colleagues’ longitudinal study of Minnesotan mother–child interaction among first-time mothers considered to be at risk of maltreatment concluded that, for children aged six, “psychologically unavailable mothers were more tense, angry, depressed and confused” and less intelligent (MacDonald, 2001: p. 50). Similarly, Hildyard and Wolfe’s (2007: pp. 898–899) comparative study of neglectful and nonneglectful mothers’ responses to child emotions and behaviors found that “neglectful mothers had significantly more children; had experienced a greater degree and severity of maltreatment in their own childhoods; were more likely to be unemployed … and reported significantly more depressive symptomatology than the comparison sample.”
Connell-Carrick and Scannapieco (2006) found that neglectful caregivers were characterized by a history of depression and attempted suicides. Substance abuse, mental illness, or learning difficulties were common in case files in Stone’s (1998: p. 92) study that concluded that “most caregivers were significantly damaged individuals who were ill-equipped, emotionally or practically, to care for children.” In Casey’s (2013) study there was a preoccupation with the balance between child and parental ‘needs’ within case files and professional dialog: neglectful mothers were considered a risk when they put their own needs first. Gaudin et al. (1996: p. 367) examined casework assessments and found that neglectful families were viewed as “less healthy; less able to resolve conflicts; less cohesive … less well led and less verbally expressive.” Similarly, Connell-Carrick and Scannapieco (2006) indicate that neglectful parents have fewer parenting skills, including effective communication and coping with stress. They were also viewed as lacking empathy and expressing dislike toward their child.
Crittenden (1999) identifies three ‘types’ of neglect within which the characteristics of parents are seen to differ:
- Disorganized neglect: families are characterized as multiproblem, disorganized, and crisis prone. Parents are described as failing to attend to children’s needs of all kinds until crisis point;
- Emotional neglect: parents may provide materially for their children but do not give adequate attention to their emotional needs; and
- Depressed neglect: parents are withdrawn and do not perceive their children’s needs. Children become silent and depressed.
Drug and Alcohol Misuse and Other ‘Risk’ Factors
Studies have also focused on specific risk factors for child neglect, including alcohol and substance misuse, mental health issues, learning disability, and domestic violence. Cleaver et al. (2007) highlight considerable evidence showing that children who grow up in families where there is domestic violence and/ or parental alcohol or drug misuse are at increased risk of significant harm. Further, Forrester (2000: p. 241) found that “substance-using families were very significantly overrepresented in neglect cases” with 9 out of 10 children whose parents used heroin registered as neglected. Alcohol misuse was also cited in 20 out of the 59 children registered for neglect. Similarly, Christoffersen and Soothill (2003) found that a mother’s alcohol abuse contributed significantly to children’s neglect. Cleaver et al. (2007) found that in social work case files, three-quarters of children living with domestic violence and/or substance misuse had unmet needs in at least one area of development. Cleaver et al. (2007) also revealed how many families experienced a combination of domestic violence, parental alcohol misuse, drug misuse, mental illness, and learning disability.
Research indicates that fathers may exacerbate the likelihood of neglect, e.g., if they are using household income to finance substance misuse. Scourfield (2000: pp. 376–377) argues that “the abusive man has a complementary relationship to the neglectful woman where his violence, abuse of money, avoidance of domestic work and frequent absence from the home are seen to hinder her care of the children.” In Casey’s (2013) discussion of the professional construction of ‘responsible neglectful mother/dangerous or absent men’, women were held responsible for being unable to meet the child’s needs as a consequence of the emotional impact of men’s violence.
Coohey (1995: p. 885) argues that “neglectful mothers exchange fewer resources with both their partners and mothers.” Stone (1998) found that 7 out of 20 neglectful families lived in reconstituted families: mostly a mother plus a new partner. Relationships and family dysfunction were central concepts guiding practitioners’ understandings of how children became neglected (Stone, 1998). Gaudin et al. (1996) compared family functioning in nonneglectful and neglectful families and found that neglectful mothers had more unresolved family conflict than those in the comparison group. Neglectful families also rated themselves as having “less closeness and less clear internal family boundaries; poorer negotiating skills; .less responsiveness to other family members’ statements; less warmth … and less empathy toward one another” (Gaudin et al., 1996: pp. 368–369). Coohey (1995: p. 885) found that neglectful mothers “were more likely to state their mothers had fewer positive attributes … their relationship was less positive and they were less interested in receiving resources from their mothers.” Significantly, explicit discussion of fathers is absent from many studies of neglectful families and, where they are included, are addressed primarily regarding their relationship with the mother (Daniel and Taylor, 2006) and being a resource for the mother’s caring role. Casey (2013) found that within professional constructions, mothers were blamed for the impermanency, chaotic, and ‘inappropriate’ nature of their relationships with men contributing to or exacerbating neglect.
The intergenerational nature of neglect and abuse has been a consistently reported, but somewhat controversial finding of child maltreatment research (Connell-Carrick and Scannapieco, 2006; MacDonald, 2001). Stone (1998: p. 92) found repeated references in case file data of mothers’ own experiences of neglect and abuse: “mum has never experienced effective nurturing parenting herself.” In this study, 18 out of 20 cases scored positively for poor parenting of caregivers, with many having a history of neglect or abuse and experiences of the care system. Moreover, Hildyard and Wolfe (2007) found that mothers with an unresolved attachment status had the most severe difficulties in interpreting their own child’s emotions. Hildyard and Wolfe (2007: p. 904) argue that research has indicated that experiences of childhood maltreatment, produces “negative representational models … based on … self-blame and shame,” adversely affecting caregiving abilities.
Theories about the intergeneration transmission of child maltreatment are highly gendered, with the overriding focus on the mother–daughter relationship. For example, Coohey states (1995: p. 893) that “the mechanisms that perpetuated child neglect may lie in personality and behavioural traits of the mother … that are then reproduced in the adult daughter through the mother-daughter relationship.”
Attachment Theory and Mother-Blaming
Swift (1995) suggests that ‘bonding theories’ are highly influential within social work practice in cases of neglect, and establish the mother as primarily responsible for meeting both material and emotional needs of their children. An implicit conceptualization of the ‘good enough’ mother is central to all of these theories. Although an understanding of attachment theory is considered crucial in identifying neglect, attachment theories have been critiqued for upholding mothers as solely and individually responsible for inadequate care and for blaming and pathologizing women.
Furthermore, physical descriptions of mothers “directs us to see poor care as closely connected to ‘defects’ in the mother and simultaneously directs attention away from the experienced problems of the mother” (Swift, 1995: p. 110). Although, as Swift (1995: p. 89) suggests Polansky’s influential studies deemed poverty and social deprivation as important factors when investigating neglect, the personality features of mothers were seen as the overriding and primary cause.
Specifically, the ‘cycle of neglect’ discourse “render[s] the social and economic context not only invisible but irrelevant” (Swift, 1995: p. 113). The neglect schema, argues Swift (1995: p. 99), validates preexisting individualized services, which are ‘directed at changing people rather than addressing social ills’: services that provide ‘reparenting’ to break the cycle. Hence, mothers are policed to care, to reach a state where she is less needy, a state, which she needs to arrive at herself in the face of limited resources (Swift, 1995). Such blaming ignores the reality of women’s lives, including material factors of limited financial resources or housing (Kufeldt et al., 2003).
Poverty and Neglect
Swift (1995) identifies two main historical discourses about the attribution of cause surrounding child neglect: personality and poverty. The relationship between poverty and child neglect is now commonly recognized. Slack et al. (2004) highlight an inverse relationship between income levels and child neglect. Similarly, Stone (1998: p. 93) highlights that “neglected children evidently suffer from poverty both in their material and their emotional environments.” Professionals in Casey’s (2013) study recognized that living in poverty can adversely impact the ‘ability to parent’ and increase the risk of neglect, while being aware of the danger in assuming that poverty was the sole cause or factor in cases of child neglect.
Beyond Simple Causation
Despite the above findings, there has, however, been a move away from notions of poverty as a simplistic causal factor of child neglect, toward an acknowledgment of the complex relationship and correlations between the two (Dubowitz et al., 1993; Slack et al., 2004). Turney (2000: p. 54) argues that practitioners need to consider the “importance of intrapersonal dynamics but.also highlight the nature of relationships between individuals, their families and wider communities.” Garbarino and Collins (1999) emphasize the interplay of biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors.
At the same time, there is evidence that high unemployment and poverty hinder parental ability to provide care, increasing the likelihood of neglect. Garbarino and Collins (1999) suggest that neglect is a function of influences on caregivers that lead to lowered morale, deteriorated functioning, and depression. Cleaver et al. (2007) have highlighted that domestic violence and parental substance misuse can impact on housing, income, and social integration. Studies have indicated that parents’ personal issues interact with contributory factors including poor housing, an absence of reliable child care, inadequate income, and institutional constraints (Casey, 2013; Dubowitz et al., 1993; Garbarino and Collins, 1999).
Connell-Carrick and Scannapieco (2006) found that families who were rated as having a poorer social climate (including social support and isolation) were more likely to be substantiated for neglect. Dubowitz et al. (1993: p. 9) argue that “the interactions between children and parents are influenced by community and societal factors such as the availability of child care and poverty.” Swift (1995) argues that living in poverty impedes parents’ capacity to improve their parenting through an absence of access to resources.
Social Neglect and Poverty
By positioning poverty as a contributory factor, social, community, and institutional forms of neglect are highlighted (Garbarino and Collins, 1999; Lawrence and Irving, 2004). As Garbarino and Collins (1999: p. 17) argue “we already know that rates of neglect are higher among poor people. So when society ignores them, it contributes to child neglect.” Institutional policies that ignore the needs of children become a form of institutional neglect (Garbarino and Collins, 1999). Dubowitz (2007) argues that poverty in itself is a form of social neglect. Hence, the neglect of children “becomes not simply an indictment of those families which fail to meet the basic needs of their children, but also of a society which fails to construct and maintain an infrastructure which facilitates parenting and values children” (Stone, 1998: p. 95).
An ecological conceptualization of neglect (Dubowitz et al., 1993: p. 10) recognize that “although parents are responsible for nurturing and protecting their children, social factors influence their ability to provide that care.” An ecological approach would allow for the “shared responsibility among individuals, families, communities and society. Replacing individual blame by a shared responsibility enables a more constructive approach, and suggests interventions be targeted at multiple levels” (Dubowitz et al., 1993: p. 15). Similarly, Turney (2000: p. 54) advocates that social workers rethink the concept of care, taking into account the political and social contexts in which it takes place: “a more holistic account of the process and relationships of caring reduces the likelihood of a simple mother-blaming response to neglect and promotes the chance of a response based on support.” For example, Swift (1995) found that reference to social and economic issues did not appear on case files pertaining to neglect, with child welfare rooted in the private family and obligation of parents to provide for children within the family structure: “the organization of records provides a format for noticing and collecting information that simultaneously reflects and supports the personalised stream of discourse about neglect and not the discourse to do with poverty” (Swift, 1995: p. 95).
This research paper has highlighted how the ‘neglect of neglect’ has been challenged through recognition of its increased incidence and evidence of its adverse effects on children. Definitions of neglect are varied and contested and can be defined narrowly and more broadly. It is recognized that neglect is complex, multifaceted, and difficult to define. However, common to most definitions is the persistent parental omission of care, a failure to provide, and to meet a child’s basic needs. There is an emphasis in practice on physical neglect, viewed as observable and visible and easier to prove in court and in legal terms. The literature also highlights that given the complexities of defining neglect, the point at which care becomes inadequate is difficult to ascertain. The notion of ‘good enough’ parenting is contested. The range of studies that explore the characteristics of neglectful parents, including mothers’ personalities, caring attitudes, relationship and attachment history, and risk factors for neglect have also been discussed. This research paper has explored the major discourses and contextual issues that have emerged, including neglect and poverty and the gendered nature of child neglect and policy responses.
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