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2.9 Neglect

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Neglect of children is one of the most difficult areas in child care and child protection to identify, communicate effectively to professionals, assess and intervene in. It is now emerging as the most common type of harm children experience although this has not always been the case which is concerning given it is more harmful than many other forms of abuse.

Working Together 2015 defines neglect as:

‘The persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse. Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to:

  • provide adequate food, clothing and shelter (including exclusion from home or abandonment);
  • protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger;
  • ensure adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate care-givers); or
  • ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment.

It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs.’

Neglect cannot be defined as a one-off incident such as seeing an untidy kitchen while on a visit. Neglect is evidenced over a period of time with proof usually gathered from a number of agencies/professionals. In trying to define neglect therefore we need to understand two things:

  • Neglect is something that is persistent and cumulative and occurs over time with little change, despite intervention.
  • That while neglect might occur within a family perceived to be living in poverty, the children at the greatest risk are those who live in families in which the parents’ own emotional impoverishment is so great that they actually do not know how to parent, do not understand their children’s needs and despite intensive intervention cannot provide for their needs.

One of the main reasons why neglect is difficult to define is that the term itself is an umbrella for numerous forms of child maltreatment.  In an attempt to overcome the problem we have broken down the definition into the following:

Types of neglect

Physical neglect

  • Refusal of/delay in healthcare - Failure or delay in seeking and obtaining appropriate healthcare services for a child/young person.
  • Abandonment/expulsion - Abandoning a child or excluding a child from the family home and refusing to accept their return.
  • Other custody issues - Repeated shuttling of a child from one household to another due to an apparent unwillingness to maintain custody/care, or chronically and repeatedly leaving a child with others for days/weeks at a time.
  • Other physical neglect - Inattention to avoidable hazards in the home, inadequate nutrition, clothing, or hygiene and other forms of reckless disregard for a child's safety and welfare.

Emotional neglect

  • Inadequate nurturance/affection - Marked inattention to the child's needs for affection, emotional support, attention or competence.
  • Chronic/extreme abuse or domestic violence - Chronic or extreme intimate partner abuse or other domestic violence in the child's presence.
  • Allowing negative behaviour - Encouragement or permitting of negative behaviours (such as criminal activity and/or substance misuse) in circumstances in which the parent/guardian was aware of the existence and seriousness of the problem but did not attempt to intervene.
  • Other emotional neglect - Other inattention to the child's developmental/ emotional needs not classifiable under any of the above forms of emotional neglect (e.g. markedly overprotective restrictions which foster immaturity or emotional over-dependence, chronically applying expectations clearly inappropriate in relation to the child's age or level of development).


Supervisory neglect

  • Inadequate supervision - Child left unsupervised or inadequately supervised for extended periods of time.


Educational or cognitive neglect

  • Permitted chronic truancy - Habitual truancy averaging at least five days a month is classifiable under this form of maltreatment if the parent/guardian has been informed of the problem but has failed to intervene.
  • Failure to enrol/other truancy - Failure to enrol a child of mandatory school age, causing the school-aged child to remain at home for non-legitimate reasons (e.g. to work or to care for siblings) an average of at least three days a month.
  • Inattention to Special Educational Needs - 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 educational need without reasonable effort.



Neglect during the first two years has profound and lasting effects on brain development leading to later problems with self-esteem, emotional regulation and relationships.

Neglect during the first five years of a child’s life is likely to damage all aspects of the child’s development. A neglected child is likely to have difficulties with basic trust; self-esteem; ability to control their behaviour; social interaction; educational attainment; and problem-solving.

Neglect in childhood is also likely to lead to problems with aspects of adult life such as:

  • Independent living in the community.
  • Accepting adult responsibilities.
  • Anti-social behaviour such as criminality, substance misuse, prostitution.
  • Life chances and opportunities such as employment and education.
  • Parenting – children who experience neglect lack a role model for good parenting, and so are at risk of becoming neglectful or abusive parents.
  • Self-care, for example nutrition, general health, risk-taking behaviour.


Difficulties in dealing with neglect may be compounded by avoidance by both families and practitioners. This can happen where families may miss appointments, ask to be seen away from their home or visitors may always be present when practitioners visit, making it difficult to discuss confidential issues.

On the professional’s side this might relate to the worker lacking confidence or knowledge of the steps to take. It could also include fear or apprehension about visiting and experiencing violence or intimidation. This can lead to the agency ‘backing off’ and reducing contact to such an extent that they could be seen as effectively abandoning the child and family. The result is ‘institutional neglect’.

Guidance from the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People's Services (2009) emphasises the need for professionals constantly to “question all assumptions by playing devil's advocate or bringing in a fresh pair of eyes. This can be supported by the provision of high quality supervision“. The quality of supervision is one of the most direct and significant determinants of practitioners’ ability to develop and maintain a critical eye and work in a reflective way.

Such an approach to supervision will lead to the recognition of ‘disguised compliance’ and encourage a robust and assertive interaction with families to promote positive change. It should be used wherever there are concerns about the neglect of children.

Disguised compliance

‘Disguised compliance’ involves a parent or carer giving the appearance of co-operating with child welfare agencies to avoid raising suspicions, to allay professional concerns and ultimately to diffuse professional intervention.  The NSPCC have developed a briefing summarising the risk factors and learning for improved practice around families and disguised compliance.


It is important appropriate weight is given to non-compliance where assessments are undertaken of families who persistently avoid contact with professionals.

‘Start again’ syndrome

Research has identified the ‘start again’ syndrome – when there is a change of practitioner insufficient attention is paid to the past complex history/chronology so that assessment and work start afresh and focus on the present. Clearly this is detrimental to the needs of the child. Any new assessment or re-assessment of a family must take into account the family’s history in order to make sense of the present.


Neglect differs from other forms of abuse in that there is rarely a single incident or crisis that draws attention to the family. It is repeated, persistent neglectful behaviour that causes incremental damage over a period of time.

There is no set pattern of signs that indicate neglect other than that the child’s basic needs are not adequately met. In this context:

  • The child’s basic needs are for food, shelter, clothing, warmth, safety, stimulation, protection, nurture, medical care, education, identity and play.
  • Adequately means sufficient to avoid harm or significant risk of harm.
  • Failure to meet the child’s needs does not necessarily mean that the parents/carers are intentionally neglectful, but it points to the need for intervention.
  • It is essential to monitor the outcome of intervention – are the child’s needs being adequately met after the intervention?

The essential factors in demonstrating that a child is being neglected are:

  • The child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.
  • The harm, or risk of harm, arises because of the failure of parents or carers to meet the child’s needs.
  • Over time, the harm or risk of harm has become worse, or has not improved to the point at which the child is consistently receiving a ‘good enough’ standard of care.

Further information on the indicators of neglect can be found in the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance.

Protection and action to be taken

A whole system approach is vital in dealing with cases of neglect, in order that children and their families receive the right type of services when they need them. Children and their families may need to ‘step up and step down’ through the tiers of service. Practitioners need to take into account issues of consent throughout the process.

In supporting a family in which neglect is an issue, the greatest of care must be taken to resist the pressure to focus on the needs of the parents/carers: intervention should concentrate on ensuring that the child’s needs are being met. This may require action to ensure that the parents/carers have access to specialist (and if necessary independent) advice and assistance, including assistance in communicating with professionals.

Universal services

In view of the impact of neglect on children’s wellbeing and development, early identification of concerns by universal services is crucial. Universal services, such as health and education, can offer early intervention and additional support, e.g. parenting classes, extra support at school. This also includes the identification of concerns antenatally and provision of services as appropriate.

Early Help Assessment

Where intervention by a single agency does not alleviate concerns, consideration should be given to undertaking an assessment using the Early Help Assessment. This requires consent by the parent/carer and child/young person as appropriate and consultation with other agencies working with the family.  The Early Help Assessment considers the needs of the child and family across a number of contexts and with the identification of any additional needs of the child and family.  A multi-agency meeting may be convened to discuss the assessment and consider the action necessary to meet these needs.  A plan outlining the actions agreed, with timescales and responsible practitioner, should be put together, with a Lead Professional taking overall responsibility for ensuring the plan is taken forward.

Arrangements should be made to review the plan and whether it is being effective in bringing about change and improving outcomes for the child.  In some situations the outcome of the Early Help Assessment will be increased concern about the welfare and safety of the child.  In such cases consideration should be given to an immediate referral to children’s social care. Information from the assessment process can be used to support the referral with consideration of consent issues.

Child in Need (section 17)

Neglect even when less serious will require a 'Child in Need' assessment under Section 17 Children Act 1989.  Such early intervention may have preventative value.

In some situations the plan will not bring about the change anticipated and concerns about the child’s wellbeing will continue or increase. In such cases parent/carer’s consent should be sought for a referral to be made to children’s social care for consideration of an initial assessment as to whether the child is in need under Section 17 of Children Act 1989:

A child is in need if: She or he is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or have the opportunity to so do, a reasonable standard of health or development without provision of services by a local authority, or if her/his health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without such services, or she or he is disabled.”

If the child is identified as a child in need, a multi-agency Child in Need plan should be developed. A meeting should be held to review the plan at regular intervals. At each review consideration should be given as to the progress being made in achieving the objectives and whether the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.

Section 47 Enquiry

The threshold that permits compulsory intervention in family life, in the best interests of the child, is that of actual or likely significant harm.

In cases of neglect it will be necessary to demonstrate that:

  • the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, and
  • the harm, or risk of harm, arises because of the care afforded to the child and the parent/carer’s failure to meet the child’s needs.

Following the completion of these enquiries, and the assessment of risk to the child, a decision will be made regarding the need for an Initial Child Protection Conference.  This will consider whether the child is at risk of significant harm and in need of a child protection plan.  Research shows that agencies have often had a long period of involvement with children and young people experiencing neglect before child protection processes are started.  In comparison with children who experience other forms of abuse, children experiencing neglectful care will have been known to agencies for much longer periods.

Stepping down

When it is decided a child no longer needs a child protection plan, consideration should be given to how to continue to support the child and family.  It is important that services are not suddenly withdrawn and that support is provided to support the changes that have been made by the family.

Legal intervention

In cases of neglect where children’s services and other agencies have been working with the family for some time, the threshold for significant harm is thought to be met and there is little likelihood of change, the local authority should consider convening a Legal Planning Meeting (LPM) to consider the need to initiate care proceedings to protect the child. If the LPM agrees the threshold for care proceedings is met, the local authority will send a letter to the parents/carers specifying its concerns, what support will be offered and what changes are needed to avoid the initiation of care proceedings; the letter will say how the parents/carers can get free legal advice and representation.

This letter will invite the parents/primary carers to attend a meeting with their solicitors. A formal agreement will be drawn up if agreement can be reached regarding the changes that need to take place to avoid proceedings. A period of monitoring will then ensue and if there is a failure to co-operate and evidence improvements within timescales the local authority will issue proceedings.

Prior to issue the local authority will complete a chronology, Statement and Interim Care Plan for each child, including information shared by partner agencies.

Giving evidence in court

The local authority may begin legal proceedings to safeguard the child if evidence-based assessments of risk conclude a child is being neglected and there has been no change by the parents/carers. Professionals involved may be required to give evidence in court. This could include police, health visitors, midwives, school nurses, teachers and social workers.

Assessments are multi-disciplinary in nature and should always represent multi-agency involvement and evidence. A tool to collate this would be an eco-map, which can evidence significant agency involvement. A chronology of all agency activity with the family is crucial.  When giving evidence in court these two tools will highlight and evidence that the neglect has been persistent and cumulative over a significant period of time.

Professionals may be required to provide written witness statements detailing their agency involvement. Evidence needs to focus on the child and the child’s world. Therefore, if home conditions are an issue, these should be related back to the Assessment Framework: Family and Environmental Factors. If global developmental delay is an issue, the parenting capacity should be assessed. Evidence should be analytical focussing on the impact on the child.

The chronology may also highlight evidence across all three domains of the assessment framework. An eco-map will also highlight the level and duration of agency involvement and is a good tool to highlight parenting capacity and evidence of compromised parenting.

Immediate protection

There will be situations where concerns about the child or their home environment is such that immediate protective action is warranted, regardless of whether reasonable support has been provided or not. In such circumstances agencies should inform children’s social care or police without delay.

The police have a power under Section 46 of the Children Act 1989 to remove a child to a place of safety (i.e. foster carer or family member), or to ensure the child is not removed from a hospital, or any other place in which the child is being accommodated, to keep them safe from the identified risk. This power to remove, (or prevent removal), of children can be used: ‘where a constable has reasonable cause to believe that a child would otherwise be likely to suffer significant harm’. This is referred to as Police Protection and can last for no more than 72 hours.

It should be noted the police have no power of entry under this act. However, in cases of an emergency Section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 should be used.


Undertaking assessments

A simple and helpful way to view neglect is to consider the needs of a child and whether or not their parents/carers are consistently meeting such needs. If not, neglect may be an issue.  Neglect is often more than a child being persistently hungry or dirty and practitioners must focus upon the range of needs that children have when considering this question.  Although any definition of neglect will always be open to a degree of judgment, there are a number of key factors that, as a rule, are consistent:

  • Neglect is a passive form of abuse. The importance of contextual information rather than incidental factors is crucial to the identification of neglect.
  • Its presentation as a ‘chronic condition’ requires the collation and analysis of sometimes small and seemingly insignificant events that only when viewed together provide evidence that neglect is an issue of concern.
  • The intent to harm the child by the parent or carer is not always present.
  • Neglectful families often face multiple problems.
  • Child neglect can cause serious harm and death.

Evidence should be gathered in a systematic way over time rather than at a specific point in time.  Neglect is a long-term developmental issue rather than a crisis caused by a single event.

Assessment needs to include everyone with a parenting role, regardless of gender or biological link. Assessments of attachment should be carefully undertaken. It is important to look beyond initial impressions. Attachment theories should be used to assess the nature of parent/child relationships. These theories should be applied across all cultures.  Observations of the parent-child interaction will inform the assessment of attachment. Unrealistic expectations or inappropriate interpretations of a child’s behaviour can be a feature of neglectful parenting, e.g. a child who cries a lot is described as ‘nasty’, as though the crying is a deliberate action designed to irritate.  The role of significant others within the household is crucial and the need for lateral checks in relation to these individuals.

Consideration should be given to engaging the wider family in the assessment to understand the role they may be able to play in the child’s life.  Family group conferencing is an effective way of involving wider family members in the development of a plan to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child in need. The family is the primary planning group in the process and it creates an opportunity for family members to understand the issues from the professional’s perspective.


While there should be sensitivity to a child’s racial, religious and cultural background and differing styles of parenting, it is important not to stereotype and make assumptions about the care of children from diverse backgrounds and not to make allowances which may be harmful to the child.

Clarity of purpose

It is important parents understand concerns about child neglect. Practitioners must be clear and honest with parents/carers about the changes they must make in their care of the child and why. Practitioners should address personal and difficult issues with parents. SMART objectives should be set (specific, measurable, achievable and realistic) with clear timescales. Practitioners should consider the impact of learning difficulties on a parent’s level of understanding, paying attention to appropriate methods of communication and assessment.

Maintaining the focus on the needs of the child

It can be difficult to gain multi-agency agreement about neglect. Sometimes this is because perceived negatives in one aspect of a child's life may be thought to be balanced out by positives in another. The assessment of neglect requires risk and protective factors to be analysed and weighted accordingly. Serious Case Reviews often refer to the ‘over optimism’ of professionals – this must be guarded against.

Focus on the day-to-day experiences of the child – what is the child’s actual lived experience and what is the impact of this? Look at the world through the child’s eyes. Stand in the child’s shoes. See the world as he or she sees it. Ask the question: ‘What is life like for this child in this family?’

Be alert to the child’s basic care needs and routinely check aspects of care such as provision of food, hygiene, and sleeping arrangements. Practitioners should be prepared to ask to look in rooms, cupboards etc.

Theories of child development should be used to benchmark concerns about a child’s presentation and welfare. An early paediatric assessment will provide a baseline of the child’s developmental milestones, as well as growth and physical health, and will be helpful in evaluating and evidencing progress or lack of it.

The importance of seeing the child on his/her own and engaging in a meaningful way, as well as observing the child at home, cannot be overstated. It can also be helpful to see the child in a variety of settings, i.e. school, nursery, respite care, to observe any differences in their demeanour and behaviour. Consideration should be given to each child within the family and the impact of the neglect on their development.

It is important to be mindful of circumstances where some children from a family are subject to a child protection plan under the category of neglect and others are not. This may give rise to mixed messages to parents/carers that not all their parenting is poor and that they only need to improve their parenting in respect of some of their children. In such circumstances all children in the household are experiencing some level of neglectful care by the mere fact that they are observing behaviour/neglect of their siblings and are therefore being emotionally abused as a result.

It is likely that parents will have needs of their own that may require intervention


Concerns about neglect are likely to have developed over a considerable period of time and chronologies are a valuable tool in highlighting concerns and patterns.  It is likely that there will be a number of minor incidences which over time begin to heighten concerns about child neglect. It is important to maintain records which agencies can use to compile a chronology.  Chronologies should be compiled when:

  • there is concern about an emerging pattern of neglect
  • a Section 47 enquiry is being undertaken.

New information

It is important to give due weight to any new information regarding a family’s circumstances or the care of the child and consider whether the case needs a different focus or escalating to another level.

Potential for change

Consideration should be given to the parent/carer’s capacity to change and to maintain this over time. Practitioners should guard against being over-optimistic about the potential to change and provide consistently good enough parenting to meet the child’s needs. In cases where it can be shown through appropriate parenting and/or psychological assessments that sufficient change is not possible, decisions should be made on the basis of timely outcomes for the child. It is important to balance the parent/carer’s potential for change with the needs of the child.

Regularly reviewing progress

It is important for agencies, individually and jointly with the parents/carers, regularly to review progress. If there has been no change in parenting over a period of time, consideration should be given to what action to take. There is the potential for ‘drift’ and lack of focus when dealing with child neglect due to the fact there are rarely major incidences and agencies need to be involved over a period of time to build up a full picture of concerns. This can lead to a loss of purpose. It is therefore essential that targets and timescales are set and reviewed. Regular reviewing should identify growing concerns.

Staff supervision

All agencies should ensure cases of neglect are regularly reviewed in supervision. The complexity of a family’s situation can overwhelm practitioners and they can become desensitised to the effects of neglect or focus on specific issues and ignore others. The opportunity for staff and supervisors to step back from cases where neglect is a feature and review their judgements and interventions is vital for the implementation of change in the lives of children for the better.

Further information

Children with disabilities

Children with disabilities are more vulnerable to neglect. Sullivan and Knutson (2000) suggest they are 3.8 times more likely to be neglected for various reasons, including the demands placed on the family’s capacity to care and children and young people not being able to communicate their own needs.

Neglect of basic care should not be confused with a lack of resources.

Practice guidance produced by The Children’s Society (Safeguarding disabled children) makes clear that disabled children have the same human rights as anyone else to be protected from harm and abuse.


In recent years there has been growing recognition that adolescents can experience neglect. A failure to understand and meet the basic care needs of young people arises from many of the same factors which lead to the neglect of children. Many teenagers have lived with neglectful care throughout their childhood. Factors which can be present are the same as many of those for younger children.

In addition, inappropriate expectations can arise when a young person becomes an adolescent. Parents may become emotionally and physically unavailable. Support may be lacking for the young person at developmental, educational and personal milestones.

A useful resource for practitioners is a Government Review that provides an accessible summary of relevant literature on adolescent neglect

Attachment and parent-child interaction

A wide range of research now shows that conception to age two is a crucial phase of human development and is the time when focused attention can reap great dividends for society. How we treat 0–2-year-olds shapes their lives, and ultimately our society. Further information is available in Conception to age 2 - the age of opportunity.

Information sharing

Information sharing is vital to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and young people. Sharing information between agencies is crucial in cases of neglect where disguised compliance is suspected in order to check assumptions and the parent’s/carers account of events.

Professionals should follow the seven Golden Rules as highlighted in Government guidance Information sharing advice for safeguarding practitioners.

Resolving professional differences across agencies

When there are differences of opinion about the action to be taken to safeguard a child or young person, the practitioner should discuss them with his or her supervisor or the designated child protection member of staff.

If concerns continue the matter should be discussed with the appropriate manager in the agency with which there is conflict. If it is not possible to resolve the difficulties at a local level then they should be taken up through the appropriate management structures. Additionally concerns can be discussed with the Head of Safeguarding.

Serious Case Reviews have highlighted the importance of agencies continuing to pursue any concerns until they are satisfied that the child or young person is appropriately safeguarded.

Neglect by secondary carers

This guidance relates only to the child’s primary carers.  Neglectful care may also be found in secondary carers such as childminders, foster carers, day care or residential settings. In this situation concerns should be reported to:

  • the child’s primary carers, so that they can take appropriate action to protect their child
  • the LADO team in children’s social care
  • the registration authority for the secondary carer (for example Ofsted), who can consider the possible implications for other children.
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