n the most general sense, child neglect is characterized by failure to provide for the child's basic needs, including food, clothing, shelter, supervision, and/or medical care. Neglect covers a range of behaviors and is difficult to define. It can be confounded by differences in cultural norms between families and the child protective service system, poverty, the current state of knowledge about what constitutes adequate care, and other factors. Further, its manifestations can derive from many causative or concurrent conditions. For example, abandonment of the child may stem from parental alcoholism, drug abuse, and/or depression. Inattention to dangerous, avoidable hazards in the home may stem from lack of knowledge, poverty, and/or apathy. A significant delay in obtaining medical treatment for illness or injury may be the result of lack of knowledge, lack of transportation, prohibitive costs, or other barriers to seeking medical services.
It is important to note that the majority of cases reported to the child protective services system, 61 percent according to 1996 NCANDS data, involve a primary allegation of neglect or emotional maltreatment, and that the majority of such cases occur in families with very low incomes. However, it is equally important to note that most impoverished families do not neglect their children, and provide strong, nurturing care for their children. Even among impoverished families, neglectful families tend to be the "poorest of the poor," often lacking adequate housing, health care and child care (National Research Council, 1993). As will be discussed in detail in Chapter 4, neglect is especially predominant in child maltreatment reports in which the parent has a substance abuse problem.
Neglect can be broken down into two types for purposes of discussion: physical and educational. (Emotional neglect will be covered in the discussion of emotional maltreatment). Physical neglect includes failure to provide or allow needed care in accordance with recommendations of a competent health care professional for a physical injury, illness, medical condition, or impairment (also called medical neglect); inadequate or nonexistent supervision of a child; chronically leaving a child with others who are not qualified to take care of him or her for days or weeks at a time; inattention to avoidable hazards in the home; inadequate nutrition, clothing, or hygiene, and other forms of reckless disregard of the child's safety and welfare, such as leaving a young child unattended in a motor vehicle. Educational neglect includes allowing or condoning chronic truancy; the failure to register or enroll a child in school; the refusal to allow or failure to obtain recommended remedial educational services, or neglect in obtaining or following through with treatment for a child's diagnosed learning disorder or other special education need (DePanfilis and Salus, 1992).