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Factors for Neglect Child Abuse

Factors for Neglect Child Abuse

The ability of a parent to provide adequate care for a child depends partly on his/her emotional maturity, coping skills, knowledge about children, mental capacity, and parenting skills. The exact cause of child neglect is not known. There are many things that may cause someone to neglect a child. Poor, violent, or crowded living conditions may be one of the reasons why it occurs. The following are other possible causes and conditions that may increase a child’s risk of neglect:

  • Being a single or a teen-age parent
  • Drinks alcohol or uses illegal drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, or marijuana
  • Has a personality disorder, depression, or another mental illness
  • Has a history of family violence, such as physical or sexual abuse
  • Has stress due to work, taking care of the child, or financial problems


Factors for Neglect Child Abuse – “Causes of Neglect”

(Source: By Child Welfare Information Gateway,

This characteristic of neglectful mothers is corroborated by Friedrich, Tyler, and Clark’s study of the personality characteristics of low-income, abusive, neglectful, and non-maltreating control mothers. The authors found that the neglectful mothers, when compared with the other two groups on standard psychological measures, were the most pathological of the three groups and were characterized as “the most hostile, most impulsive, under most stress, and the least socialized.” The neglectful mothers as a group were judged to be “more dysfunctional than the abusive mothers, less socialized, angrier, more impulsive, more easily aroused (by infant cries) and have greater difficulty habituating to stressful and non-stressful stimuli.”

Neglecting parents also score significantly higher on the rigidity, loneliness, unhappiness, and the negative concept of self and child dimensions of Milner’s Child Abuse Potential Inventory.


Although not consistently supported by research, clinical depression has also been associated with mothers who neglect. Studies of depressed women by psychiatric researchers have consistently found that depressed mothers are more likely than non-depressed mothers to be hostile, rejecting, and indifferent toward their children and to be neglectful especially with respect to feeding and supervision.

Evidence for the association of depression and neglect from studies of neglect is mixed. Polansky’s descriptions of neglectful mothers in Appalachia paint a picture of depressed women. But only two controlled studies of neglectful mothers have specifically examined the relationship between depression and neglect. One study did not find a significant difference between small samples of neglectful, abusive, and normal mothers on a measure of psychopathology that included depression.

Zuravin’s more recent study of neglecting and non-neglecting AFDC mothers did find a significant relationship between depression and neglect. Results of a controlled study of neglectful families currently in progress adds further support for the relationship between depression and neglect. Scores on a standardized measure of depression indicated that 60 percent of neglectful mothers versus only 33 percent of a comparison group of low-income non-neglecting mothers had a “clinically significant” problem with depression. Further research is needed to firmly establish the relationship of clinical depression and neglect, but such a diagnosis should be considered when assessing child neglect and appropriate clinical treatment offered if indicated.

Poor Social Skills

As Polansky et al. suggest, neglectful parents are typically not only deficient in their parenting skills, but have pervasive deficiencies in coping skills in many areas of living. The researchers’ initial studies of neglectful mothers in Appalachia revealed that deficiencies in social skills and poor self-esteem resulted in neglectful mothers selecting equally ineffectual, unsuccessful male partners, who only served to confirm and compound their deficiencies. A subsequent study, which included neglectful fathers, revealed deficiencies in social participation and in their abilities to invest themselves emotionally in another person and in productive work.

In Egeland et al.’s longitudinal mother-child study, the existence of an intact, long-term, stable relationship with a husband or boyfriend was found to be the critical factor distinguishing mothers who discontinued maltreating their children from those who continued to maltreat. Belsky has suggested that the relationship between mother and spouse or boyfriend is the most critical supportive linkage for parents. The majority of neglectful mothers lack this critical support.

Neglectful mothers also have significant deficiencies in their social-communication and problem-solving skills. Polansky has characterized neglectful mothers as “verbally inaccessible.” They lack the ability to express their own feelings in words, and therefore are not good candidates for traditional psychotherapy. He explains that they are psychologically detached or “split off” from their own feelings, and thus, are unable to recognize feelings and put them into words.

Neglectful parents have also been found to lack knowledge of and empathy for children’s age-appropriate needs. They have more unrealistic and more negative expectations of their children than non-neglecting parents.

Substance Abuse

Abuse of alcohol or drugs is often present in cases of child neglect. Recent reports from urban CPS agencies indicate that substance abuse is a factor in a growing percentage of child neglect cases. Estimates range from a low of less than 24 percent to 80 to 90 percent of all child maltreatment reports. An earlier study found that 52 percent of the children removed from their homes for severe child abuse or neglect had at least one parent with a history of alcoholism. A study of women served in a Chicago alcoholism treatment program reported that 65 to 75 percent of the women were neglectful toward their children. The epidemic of cocaine addiction in urban inner-city areas has resulted in large increases in the numbers of neglect reports. The alarming increase of cocaine-affected infants has placed large burdens on the already overtaxed child welfare system. In spite of these associations, there is yet insufficient data to conclude that substance abuse causes neglect, but it is an increasingly significant contributing factor.

Characteristics of Children and Family System Factors

Research suggests that certain factors in family composition, size, and patterns of interaction contribute to child neglect. Even some characteristics of children may contribute to neglectful parenting.

Child Characteristics

Studies have not identified unique characteristics of neglected children that contribute to neglect. However, Crittenden’s studies of parent-child interactions in abusive and neglectful families suggest that the children in neglectful families develop behavior patterns as a result of the interactions that make them more likely to experience further neglect. As a result of the mother’s inattention, the neglected child often develops patterns of either extremely passive, withdrawing behaviour or random, undisciplined activity. Both of these patterns are likely to result in further inattention and distancing on the part of the child’s neglectful parent. Studies have not clearly established the relationship between handicapped children and neglect. However, Belsky and Vondra cite numerous studies that support the association of prematurity, “difficult” temperament, and mentally handicapped children with tendencies of their parents to be less responsive, less attentive to their needs. Younger children are more vulnerable to serious injury from neglect, but when educational neglect is included, older children are more often neglected.

Family Composition

Most neglectful families are single-parent families. The absence of the father in the majority of neglectful families means lower income and less tangible resources to provide for children’s needs. Polansky, Chalmers, Buttenweiser, and Williams found that neglectful families with fathers present in the household had significantly higher income and provided better physical care than the single-parent families, but not better emotional/cognitive care. The physical absence or emotional disengagement of the father has been identified as contributing to deprived parenting in families of failure to thrive infants. Beyond these studies, little research attention has been focused on fathers or adult males in neglectful families.

Family Size

Chronic neglectful families tend to be large families with fewer resources to meet basic needs than other families. Numerous studies have discovered that neglectful families on the average have more children than nonneglecting families. Studies of neglectful families by Polansky in Philadelphia and in Georgia found that neglectful families averaged 3.5 or more children, compared to significantly fewer children in similarly situated (low socioeconomic status [SES]) nonneglecting control families. Similar patterns of larger than average number of children in neglectful families were discovered by Giovannoni and Billingsley and by Wolock and Horowitz. The Study of National Incidence and Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect reported that the estimated rate of neglect among families with four or more children was almost double the rate among families with three or fewer children.


Factors for Neglect Child Abuse – “Poverty and Child Neglect”


Poverty and child neglect are related, but poverty does not cause neglect. Although poverty does not cause neglect, poverty permeates neglecting families.

What is the difference between poverty and neglect? Poverty is when the caregiver does not have the resources to provide the need. Neglect is when the caregiver has the resources, but chooses not to provide the need. Therefore, neglect is a choice.

Some Poverty and Child Neglect Facts

  • Approximately 1.1 million Canadian children, or 16.4%, are living in poverty (Campaign 2000′s 2002 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty(1)).
  • In 1998, 19% of Canada’s children lived in poverty: persistent poverty affected 12% of children (Save the Children Canada, 2001 (2)).
  • Many Aboriginal communities exist in conditions of extreme poverty and unemployment. More than 70% of Aboriginal households live below the poverty line, while unemployment ranges from 50 – 90% (Health Canada, 1996 (3)).
  • Neglect of children and youth is more closely tied to poverty than child abuse (Crittenden, 1996, p. 162 (4)).

Society relies on established knowledge and opinion about what a child needs to develop and thrive within normal limits to determine what constitutes inappropriate and inadequate parenting. However, society continues to ignore and negate the devastating effect neglect has on children, families and society. Simply instructing neglecting parents about how to parent or punishing them for inadequate parenting will not eradicate the neglect of children. This approach places the responsibility for neglect solely on the parents and excuses the family, the community, society and our culture. (Mosher)

In Canada, there are social services in place to help families in need. But with regard to poverty and child neglect, the system is still woefully inadequate, due to:

  • A lack of government resources
  • The difficulty in trying to differentiate between neglect and lack of adequate resources
  • The shame of asking for charity that can be associated with poverty

While it is beyond the scope of this website to get into a lengthy discussion about how government, society and families can and possibly should take more responsibility with regard to poverty and child neglect, it is important to note that the latter two points above make providing assistance challenging.

Poverty and child neglect is a conundrum, but the basic human needs of a child is what should ultimately be considered, not who is to blame and why.


(1) Campaign 2000. (2002). 2002 report card on child and family poverty. Retrieved December 2, 2002 from

(2) Save the Children Canada. (2001). A Canada fit for children: A report on the realities for young people in Canada today. Toronto: Save the Children Canada.

(3) Health Canada. (1996). Breaking the links between poverty and violence against women. Ottawa: Health Canada, Family Violence Prevention Division.

(4) Crittenden, P. (1996). Research on maltreating families. In J. Briere, L. Berliner, J.A. Bulkley, C. Jenny, & T. Reid (Eds.), The APSAC Handbook On Child Maltreatment, (pp.158-174). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, INC.


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