It’s a silent problem. While newspapers and TV news shows regularly highlight stories of child physical and sexual abuse, the companion problem, child neglect, hardly gets a mention. Neglect, unless accompanied by pictures of squalor or emaciated kids, is much harder to capture in a headline or sound bites. Abuse is active and often characterized by violence and exploitation. Neglect is passive and often characterized by depression and resignation. Abuse makes a better news story.
But neglect is the bigger problem. In 2005, almost 900,000 children were victims of maltreatment. More than half 63 percent were victims of neglect. Less than 12 percent of substantiated cases involved child sexual abuse. Further, while child abuse steadily declined from 1990 to 2005, the incidence of neglect didn’t go down at all. Sadly, it is the youngest children who are most likely to be neglected.
Linda grew up as the oldest of eight kids in rural Connecticut. “My mother needed the kind of love that babies give. Once a kid started to be at all independent, she was done with him. Looking back, I know she was mentally ill. But at the time, I just thought that babies were mom’s job and everyone else was mine. I give my dad some credit. At least he worked steady and supported us but he was either working or drinking so he was no help at home.”
Although her parents brought home bags of groceries now and then, Linda and her siblings never had a meal prepared for them. They foraged in the cupboards. Mom did do some laundry but Linda can’t remember ever having clean sheets or a clean house. While their mother rocked the current baby, the other kids were left on their own. The kids did what they wanted when they wanted. “It’s a wonder we didn’t get hurt more often,” says Linda. “It was only when we all regularly showed up at school with head lice that protective services finally got involved.”
I’ve been seeing Linda for therapy for several years. Never having had order or structure or basic necessities, she finds it difficult to organize her things, manage a schedule or maintain a healthy lifestyle. Never having had love or support from her parents, she finds it difficult to love, to trust, or to reciprocate in relationships.
Neglect is the failure of caregivers to provide needed age-appropriate care. In a family like Linda’s, there is often both physical and psychological neglect. Physical neglect is the failure to provide the basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing. It also includes the failure to provide needed medical care or adequate supervision. As a result, the kids are at risk for malnutrition, illness, and physical harm. Having never experienced good care, they may become adults who often don’t know how to care for themselves or others.
Psychological neglect, though less obvious, is just as serious. Children who are constantly ignored, rejected, threatened, or belittled grow up without the inner resources that everyone needs to cope with difficult times. When children get little or no affection and physical comfort, they are vulnerable to anyone who will give them attention. Often they become sitting ducks for people who exploit them.
Brett is trying to break a drug habit. “When did you start using?” I ask. “Oh, I think I was about eight,” he replies.
“Eight?” After 35 years in this business, it takes a lot to surprise me but I still internally register some shock when I hear this kind of story.
“Yeah. My folks never looked out for us kids. They didn’t like us much. We were expected to stay out of the house and out of their sight as long as it was light. The older guys in the neighborhood thought it was funny to get the younger kids stoned. We thought being included by the big guys was cool.”
Brett is now 30 and trying to get his life together. Having been stoned for over 20 years, he lacks basic social skills, has low self-esteem, and can’t shake a chronic depression. In many ways, his psychological development stopped at age 8.