Neglect: The Quieter Child Abuse
The effects of childhood neglect can be devastating and long-term. Neglected kids have poor social skills and may fall into substance abuse. Lacking true friendships, they settle for being drinking or drugging buddies. Even more often, they develop serious psychological problems including depression, post traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, and personality disorders. Sadly, Brett is not at all unusual in his response to early neglect. At 30, he now has to learn how to give himself the parenting he never had.
It’s often school professionals who first notice neglected kids. They come to school dirty, tired, hungry, and inappropriately clothed. They sometimes become a regular fixture in the nurse’s office, complaining of vague stomachaches and headaches. They often can’t concentrate in school and don’t do well. Some are withdrawn and depressed. Others are very, very angry and rebellious. Sometimes they substitute attitude for confidence. Frequently absent, they have little chance of keeping up with the curriculum. Unable to succeed, they stay away more and more. When the school calls the parents for a meeting, the parents seldom show up. When they do show up, they may be overwhelmed and incapable or defensive and angry.
Jordan’s teacher knows she should be more sympathetic. She admits with some shame that she’s relieved when he doesn’t come to school. When he does show up, he is usually dirty and oddly dressed. He smells. The other kids avoid him. Although he is 12, he is still in the fourth grade. Frequent absences mean he probably won’t get promoted this year either. Notes and calls to his parents get no response. Jordan is neglected.
Jenny, on the other hand, always has the latest clothes and the latest technology. Her teachers are very concerned because she is sexually provocative with peers and even with her male teachers. Her guidance counselor was able to have one briefly unguarded conversation with her. Hungry for love and attention, Jenny acknowledged that she goes after sex as a route to some kind of love. The counselor has called Jenny’s mother repeatedly to request a meeting. Mother says she is much too busy. “I put off my own life long enough,” says the mother. “She’s 15 now and she can take care of herself.” Jenny is neglected too.
Neglect is found at all levels of the economic spectrum. While some kids, like Jordan, suffer the dual burden of neglect and poverty, other children, like Jenny, have parents who have plenty of material resources. They are willing and able to provide material things but not enough care and concern.
Neglected children often are undetected both because they are less obviously hurting and because America has a tradition of respecting family privacy. Sadly, the end result is that neglected children are protected neither by their parents or their community.
If you suspect neglect is occurring to a child you know, it’s important to get involved. Report it to your local child protective services. Most will allow you to do so anonymously if you prefer. Generally, a report is followed up with an investigation. Despite the impression created by high-profile cases, it is rare that children are removed from their home. That only occurs in the most severe cases, when the child is at significant risk for harm. Even in those cases, removal is usually temporary, with placement with extended family being preferred to foster care.
Sometimes the best efforts to preserve the family fail and children are placed with foster families to keep them safe and to give them a chance for a better life. Whenever possible, though, the approach in most communities and states is to educate and support the parents and to monitor the children in the hope that their own family can become a safe and healthy one. Once provided with adequate services, many parents do improve.