Neglect: A Quieter Abuse

Neglect is the most prevalent form of child abuse in the United States.

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Walt Jabsco.
CC image courtesy of Flickr, Walt Jabsco.

According to Psychology Today, “More children suffer from neglect in the United States than from physical and sexual abuse combined.” In 2012, according to the Children’s Bureau report Child Maltreatment78.3 percent of victims suffered neglect.. Compare that to 18.3 percent who were physically abused and 9.3 percent who were sexually abused. The 78.3 percent of victims who experienced neglect equals approximately 537,138 children.

The effects of child neglect are significant. Psych Central explains these effects as “devastating and long-term”; they include a decrease in social skills, an increased risk for substance abuse, and a higher chance of developing “serious psychological problems including depression, post traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, and personality disorders.” Numerous studies have linked early childhood neglect with the suppression of necessary growth hormones. In its summary of one of these studies, Time Magazine noted that, “Without devoted, repeated acts of love, a child’s brain doesn’t make the growth hormone needed for proper mental and physical development and numerous other imbalances are also created.”

Neglect can also cause death. According to the American Humane Association, “42.2 percent of child maltreatment fatalities in the United States in 2005 occurred as a result of neglect only” (emphasis added).

Unfortunately, the reality of child neglect and its devastating consequences are often overlooked. Most of the conversations around child abuse focus only on the abuses with immediately visible impacts: physical and sexual abuse. Conversations about neglect usually only involve extreme or foreign neglect cases. When it comes to neglect right here in our communities — whether those communities are suburban, Christian, or homeschooling — we tend to consider neglect not as serious.

This is a problem that we must address.

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Defining Neglect

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The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) sets forth the groundwork and minimum requirements for state laws on child abuse. Within that framework, most States recognize four major types of maltreatment. Neglect is one of those four major types. (The others are physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse.)

The Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG) defines neglect as “the failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs.” In general, most states and organizations agree neglect consists of 4 categories:

  1. Physical neglect
  2. Educational neglect
  3. Emotional neglect
  4. Medical neglect

Physical neglect accounts for most cases of child maltreatment. This usually involves a parent or caretaker not providing a child with basic material necessities like sufficient food, clothing, or shelter. This is maltreatment because not providing such necessities puts a child’s development, health, and well-being in jeopardy. According to the American Humane Association, effects of physical neglect include: “failure to thrive; malnutrition; serious illness; physical harm in the form of cuts, bruises, burns or other injuries due to the lack of supervision; and a lifetime of low self-esteem.”

Educational neglect occurs when a parent or caretaker fails to provide appropriate schooling (whether via public, private, or home schooling, or special education training) for a child. Not educating a child deprives that child of important and basic life skills and can lead to serious ramifications later in the child’s life. Educational neglect is particularly significant when a child has special education needs.

Emotional neglect is the failure of a parent or caretaker to provide necessary psychological care for a child. It can also include the infliction of emotional abuse. Examples of emotional neglect include (but are not limited to): creating climates of fear for a child as a form of punishment; forcing a child into social isolation and depriving the child from necessary socialization; consistently ignoring a child’s need for encouragement, interaction, or nurturing; actively rejecting a child’s need for affection; constantly putting a child down through belittling, name-calling, or other forms of verbal abuse. Emotional neglect can create a negative self-image, leading a child to self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse or even suicide. Also, as stated earlier, severe emotional neglect of an infant — such as ignoring that infant’s need for love and nurturing — can lead to an infant’s failure to thrive, even death. 

Medical neglect happens when a parent or caretaker fails to give appropriate health care for a child even though that parent or caretaker has the financial means to do so. Failing to take care of a child’s health needs can place that child at a severe risk of disability or death. While most people understand the necessity of immediate health care when a child has an emergency or acute illness, it is important to understand that failing to get a child the proper help for a treatable chronic disease or disability can result in massive future complications for that child. Numerous homeschool alumni have spoken up about serious medical problems they suffer from today because their parents did not get them the needed treatments back when their problems are manageable or treatable.

While courts and child protective services make exceptions for medical neglect when families religiously object to modern medicine or treatments, HARO believes there is no moral excuse for making a child suffer medically or die because of religion. Children deserve better than that. Parents have a right to their religion, but children have a right to their lives and health, too.

It is also important to point out there is a difference between abusive medical neglect (caused when parents can afford medical care but refuse to) and neglect caused because of poverty. No family should be punished simply for being poor or lacking resources like transportation. Part of the fight against neglect is to be able to see when a family is truly trying their best but need community (or even government) support to make it through a difficult time.

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Neglect and Homeschooling

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Physical Neglect

Cases of severe physical neglect make frequent appearances on Homeschooling’s Invisible Children (HIC). HIC has documented over 100 cases of food deprivation as well as over 100 cases of improper housing. The highly publicized case of Hana Williams’s death demonstrates that even seemingly upstanding Christian homeschool families are not immune to neglect. Hana died in May 2011 from hypothermia,

“after her mother banished her from the house as punishment for being ‘rebellious.’ Hana was already overly-thin from starvation—her parents withheld food as punishment—and she had often been forced to sleep in the barn, use an outdoor port-a-potty, and shower outside.”

Homeschool alum Mary has described being punished with frequent and significant food and sleep deprivation as child. She was forced to stay up for periods of “over 24 hours” and go without food for up to 5 days (though she snuck food to stay alive). This happened on numerous occasions.

What Mary experienced, and what Hana died from, are clear-cut cases of criminal neglect. And they happened in seemingly model homeschooling families — which should be a wake-up call for all homeschoolers.

Educational Neglect

Many homeschool alumni have also spoken up about their experiences of educational neglect. A recent and high-profile case was the story of Josh Powell covered by the Washington Post. Powell shared how, at the age of 16, he had never written an essay and couldn’t do basic algebra.

Powell’s experience is sadly shared by other alumni. In an interview with WORLD Magazine, Heather Doney mentioned that, at age 12, she couldn’t multiply or divide. Sarah Henderson wrote about entering public school for the first time at age 17 and that she had “no idea how to be a student,” did not understand “the relationship between decimals and fractions was,” and had to learn “what an essay actually was and how to write one.”

Educational neglect within homeschooling families can impact students of all genders. However, due to the stay-at-home-daughter movement popular within certain conservative Christian subcultures, there seems to be a preponderance of testimonies from female-assigned alumni who were denied an adequate education on the basis of gender. Homeschool alum Leah explains that her and her sister’s lack of education was due to being a female:

“I don’t remember my mom actually teaching me anything after the 6th grade. My brother ‘dropped out’ when he was in 10th grade (and by dropped out I mean my mom didn’t know how to teach him algebra so they both just gave up, and he got a job as a waiter in a restaurant). After that my mom pretty much gave up on my sister’s and my education. I think part of it was because she didn’t think (as females) that we really needed an education. I begged her to let me go to school. It was all I had wanted from the time I knew what school was, but she refused.”

In educationally neglectful families with multiple children, often times alumni had to pick up the slack due to their parents’ neglect. Siblings end up being responsible for other siblings’ education. An alum going by the name of Philosophical Perspectives had this experience:

“I grew up in a home where neglect was the norm.  My dad left for work in the morning, and my mom didn’t get out of bed until noon. As the oldest of three, it was my job to cook and clean, and make sure my siblings were ‘doing their school.’  What ability an eight year old has to make a 2 and 5 year old sit down and plow through math textbooks, I’ll never know. My youngest sibling’s only memory of learning anything in his childhood was me, age 10, teaching him to read.”

Emotional Neglect

We frequently hear about cases of emotional neglect at Homeschoolers Anonymous. Whether it is through verbal abuse, forced social isolation, or punitive discipline techniques that deprive a child of necessary love and nurturing, emotional neglect is tragically commonplace in many homeschooling families. This is especially tragic considering that many homeschooling families specifically choose to homeschool because of negative emotional experiences the parents had in public school. Unfortunately, withdrawal from public school does not necessarily guarantee an emotionally safe and nurturing environment for a child. Homeschool alum Ruth described her experiences of emotional neglect in the following way:

“From age ten to age twenty, I had no friends. I went to church on Sunday and to piano lessons every other week. My mom was so busy having and caring for my younger siblings that my high school courses consisted of me by myself plowing through one textbook after another. My mom was frequently unhappy with the amount of time I spent on my school work because she needed me to help with my siblings. I was free childcare, and while I loved my family (they were all the life I had), I completely missed out on any experiences that would have allowed me to develop my own identity as an individual or develop any independence from my parents.”

Medical Neglect

While many homeschooling families embrace modern medicine and health care, there are also many families who choose to homeschool specifically to avoid such medicine and care. Some religious homeschoolers believe in “faith healings” as well, preferring to “pray” disease away instead of seek a doctor’s advice. As a result, many homeschool alumni have suffered greatly because once-treatable conditions became more significant. Here is an excerpt from Electra’s story of medical neglect:

“I have long term respiratory issues because my parents chose not to vaccinate for whooping cough. I had it when I was five and was ill for months with little to no medical care and as a result have had pneumonia many times, only receiving medical care one time. I was sick in bed for over two months, during which time my parents’ marriage continued to fall apart.”

Electra is not alone. Kierstyn King also was denied necessary medical care because of her parents’ religious beliefs. Kierstyn writes

“My parents stopped taking us to doctors before I was 10. They believed that god told them doctors were evil, to go to doctors was to not have faith in god’s ability and will to heal the sick. Along with that, came the belief that if you were sick, it likely had something to do with sin in your life… Because my parents didn’t believe in doctors, they also didn’t believe in medicine, because there is a greek word called Pharmakeia which is where the word pharmacy is derived from, but also means witchcraft. My parents made the jump to then decide that any medication, including ibuprofen and tylenol is evil, because witchcraft.”

Medical neglect also applies to the denial of mental health care for children. This is an all-too-common experience of homeschool alumni who grew up in conservative Christian homes. You can read many accounts of such medical neglect in Homeschoolers Anonymous’s mental health and self-injury series. Here is but one of such stories:

“My parents saw my [self-injury and depression] as rebellion against their authority that should be broken instead of mental and emotional issues that needed to be treated seriously.  They loved me dearly, but refused to admit that self-injury and anorexia were ‘real’ disorders.  The few times that I went to the doctor during this period, they strongly reccomended my parents allow me to attend sessions with a medical therapist – but they refused, as they saw no potential benefits from a medical professional hearing about my ‘rebellion’.”

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Warning Signs of Neglect

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As neglect is a form of child abuse, the warning signs of abuse in general include the warning signs of neglect specifically. You can learn more about those warning signs here.

It is important, nonetheless, to focus on neglect’s specific warning signs. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, you should consider the possibility of neglect when a child:

  • Is extremely withdrawn and/or passive
  • Displays random, undisciplined activity
  • Is frequently absent from school (in the case of homeschooling, your co-op or weekly homeschool park day)
  • Begs or steals food or money
  • Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses
  • Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor

You should also consider the possibility of neglect when a parent or other adult caregiver:

  • Appears to be indifferent to a child
  • Is unable to show empathy for a child’s age-appropriate needs
  • Seems apathetic or depressed
  • Has either an infantile or narcissistic personality
  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner
  • Is abusing alcohol or other drugs
  • Has both a large family and few resources to meet that family’s needs
  • Displays either infrequent or predominantly negative communication with family
  • Avoids being involved in church or other formal organizations that could be support systems
  • Went through a recent and significantly life-upsetting loss of income (e.g., recent unemployment of the family’s main income-earner)

You can read more about why the above parent/caregiver warning signs are linked to neglect here.

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Preventing Neglect

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There are many steps that you as a fellow parent, homeschool leader, or homeschooling organization can take to prevent child neglect in your community. These steps can be divided into 2 categories: proactive steps and preventive steps. 

Proactive steps

Proactive steps are steps you can start taking today to just make your families and communities healthier and safer in general. The following six protective factors have been linked to a lower incidence of child abuse and neglect:

First, nurturing and attachment: When children and their caretakers have positive and reaffirming feelings for one another, children develop trust that those caretakers will provide the resources necessary to thrive.

Second, knowledge of parenting and of child and youth development: Parents and caretakers who understand child development and growth can provide an environment where kids can live up to their full potential.

Third, parental resilience: Parents and caretakers who have positive attitudes and can creatively problem solve are able to more effectively embrace challenges — and less likely to direct anger at their kids.

Fourth, social connections: Raising a family and homeschooling are both difficult tasks. Having trustworthy and loving family friends make those tasks more manageable as well as enjoyable.

Fifth, concrete supports for parents: Families need basic resources like food, clothing, housing, and transportation, as well as access to services like child or mental health care. (Sadly, many families lack these.)

Sixth, social and emotional competence: Children need to learn how to express their emotions in healthy ways, positively interact with others, and self-regulate their behaviors. Learning how to do so can lower their risk of abuse.

Ask yourself — and your fellow homeschooling families and leaders — how your community can promote and inspire others to embrace the above six factors. Whether that involves holding free classes about child development, encouraging social events, or taking care of the struggling or low-income families in your homeschooling community, create an environment where no child is lacking the means to excel and thrive at life.

Preventative steps

No matter how proactive you are in ensuring your communities and families are safe, abuse will still happen. So the following are preventative steps you can take to help you be able to prevent neglect as soon as you become aware of it:

First, get to know everyone in your community. As you build relationships, you can better identify problems as soon as they arise.

Second, make it a habit to help every family under stress. Have your community offer to babysit, help with chores and errands, or suggest resources in the community that can help.

Third, reach out to children in your community. You never know how much a random smile or word of encouragement can mean. You also are communicating you are a safe person to talk to if a child doesn’t feel safe at home.

Fourth, learn how to recognize and report signs of child abuse and neglect. And if and when you have concerns, be sure to report those concerns to the proper authorities.

Fifth, teach others how to recognize and report signs of child abuse and neglect. The more that everyone in your community knows how to identify neglect, the better equipped you’ll be to address it if and when it arises.

Sixth, establish a system of home visitations for your homeschool community or group. Or even just a system of phone calls. This doesn’t need to be nosy or annoying. But in the event that, for example, a family hasn’t been to the weekly park day for several weeks and no one knows what happened to the family, have a system in place where someone takes note and makes a point to check in on that family to make sure they are ok.

As you take both these proactive and preventative steps, remember that neglect is not necessarily the result of abusive parenting. Neglect is more complicated than other forms of abuse because it can be caused by circumstances completely outside the control of a good and loving parent. When parents are trying their best but simply lack the necessary resources, they should be reached out to and surrounded with support. However, when parents are simply neglecting their children out of anger, apathy, or substance abuse, it is important to get the necessary help to the children.

When in doubt, always make a report to the proper authorities. Those authorities are equipped to discern the difference between criminal neglect and neglect caused by other forces. 

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For more information about child neglect, see the following resources:

American Humane Association, “Understanding the definition and impact of neglect”

Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Child Neglect: A Guide for Intervention”

Mental Health Today, “Healing Childhood Abuse and Neglect: Abandonment”

Time Magazine, “Measure of a Mother’s Love: How Early Neglect Derails Child Development”

Psych Central, “Neglect: The Quieter Child Abuse”

Psych Central, “Recovering from Childhood Neglect”

Psychology Today, “The Invisible Power of Childhood Emotional Neglect”

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