More than 75 percent of all child protection cases in the US are due to neglect, and yet despite this alarming frequency, a new study finds that child welfare workers lack the tools necessary to identify cases of chronic neglect.
The findings, which add critical new insights to the understudied area of chronic child neglect, appear in the journal Child & Family Social Work.
In general, neglect is defined as a lack of adequate care, including failure to meet basic needs like food and housing, lack of supervision, inadequate essential medical care, and educational neglect.
Chronic neglect refers to repeated incidents of neglect, often across several developmental stages. For the study, the researchers define chronic neglect as five or more reports investigated by child protection agencies over a five-year period.
Chronic neglect can impact early brain and cognitive development and emotional regulation, but even within child protection agencies, social workers might rate neglect cases as lower risk when compared to what they consider more serious offenses.
“Most of the time child neglect is considered among the least damaging forms of maltreatment compared to physical and sexual abuse, but we do have research that neglect and chronic neglect, especially, are significantly detrimental to children even when they’re not physically harmed,” said researcher Patricia Logan-Greene, an assistant professor from the University at Buffalo School of Social Work.
The new findings suggest that the ineffective assessments are often the result of case workers using instruments that are not specifically designed to include elements that can identify chronic neglect.
The researchers say that many child protection agencies, in the absence of properly targeted assessments, turn to standardized assessments that do not address the potential accumulation of harm due to chronic neglect.
“Most of these tools weren’t developed with chronic neglect in mind at all, but even the standardized assessments, according to the results, weren’t consistently implemented,” said Logan-Greene.
“We know from previous research, for example, that having in place good support systems protects against neglect, yet 99 percent of families with chronic neglect are categorized as having good support.”
But that can’t possibly be true, say the researchers.
“There’s a real opportunity here for states to look at implementation practices and train case workers to ensure effective implementation,” said Annette Semanchin Jones, also an assistant professor of social work at University at Buffalo.
The researchers identify critical predictors of chronic neglect, such as hazardous housing, mismanaged finances, and alcohol abuse, which Logan-Greene says can help predict which families need the most help.
The primary caregiver in families with chronic neglect is also more likely to have a history of domestic violence, drug use, and mental health problems.
The researchers say that either new, more effective tools need to be developed or current ones should be modified.
“One of the implications here is that we could potentially add to or adjust standardized assessments so we could use them for chronic neglect,” said Semanchin Jones. “There are many ways neglect impacts on the well-being of these children, so if we know that, we can then intervene for families that might go on to develop chronic neglect.”
For the study, the researchers looked at roughly 2,000 first neglect reports and followed the families into the future to determine if that neglect became chronic.
“We compared those who never had another report to others, and we also compared them using the agency’s risk assessment tools to determine if that tool effectively predicted chronic neglect,” says Semanchin Jones.
Source: University at Buffalo