The Most Common Form of Child Abuse

Sad girl

A sixth-grade memory haunts me.

I attended a small, rural school in small town Indiana where many of the kids came from families who were struggling financially. A quiet and rather shy girl in my class wore the same purple short-sleeved blouse and red jeans to school almost every day.

Now, it’s one thing to wear the same clothes over and over again, but as the year progressed, this little girl’s brown hair started to snarl in the back, becoming quite massive until it virtually consumed her head, her frail neck suffering under the mass.


I remember worrying about her and her many siblings… but what I don’t recall is having shared my concerns with anyone. Not my parents. Not my teacher. Not my classmates. No one.

Abuse education was non-existent in my day. I can only hope the teachers or administrators at the school took action to intervene and help this poor little girl. Reflecting on her situation through the eyes of an adult, I fear they did not. Or if they tried, nothing came of it.

To this day, I wonder what ever happened to her…

Child Neglect

Nearly 80% of all child abuse cases involve neglect.

Would you believe neglect is the most common form of child abuse in the United States? According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services “Child Maltreatment 2012” Report, over three-quarters, 78.3%, of all child abuse cases involved neglect. Of those reported cases…

      • 80% of the children were 11 years of age or younger
      • 50% of the children were 5 years of age or younger

Sadly, many children who are victims of neglect are frequently overlooked. Neglect cases are often more difficult to detect and therefore go unreported. People may suspect something “isn’t quite right”, but fear being “wrong” and don’t report their concerns or suspicions to authorities. Sometimes, reports are made, yet not substantiated by an investigating agency often due to child abuse statues which vary by state.

Children with physical, emotional, intellectual or medical disabilities, or clinical behavioral problems, are at greatest risk for maltreatment. Tragically, in over 80% of child maltreatment cases, the perpetrator is one or both parents. Of the nearly 1,300 child fatalities in 2012, 69% suffered some form of neglect.

Tragically, in over 80% of child maltreatment cases, the perpetrator is one or both parents.

What is Child Neglect?

The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) defines child neglect as: “A type of maltreatment that refers to the failure by the caregiver to provide needed, age-appropriate care although financially able to do so or offered financial or other means to do so.”

Degree of severity can range in neglect cases from mild to moderate to severe. As the threat to a child increases in each of those categories, so do the consequences for the perpetrator(s).

Categories of child neglect include (source: American Humane Association)…

1. Physical neglect is the most common form of child neglect, entailing a caregiver’s failure to provide a child with basic needs such as adequate food, clothing or shelter. This can include abandonment or even a lack of supervision.

2. Emotional/Psychological neglect includes caregiver actions such as one parent abusing another parent in the presence of a child, withholding love or support from a child, belittling or bullying a child, or allowing/enabling a child to illegally use drugs or alcohol. This type of neglect also includes ignoring, rejecting, verbally assaulting, isolating, terrorizing, corrupting or exploiting a child.

3. Medical neglect is failing to provide a child with adequate healthcare including: medical treatment in an emergency; ongoing care for chronic illnesses; and appropriate medical care for diseases or conditions that could lead to the long-term disability or disfigurement of a child. Medical neglect is often associated with poverty. There is a distinction, though, between not being able to financially provide care while actively seeking options for child, as opposed to simply disregarding a child’s need for medical care.

4. Educational neglect involves a caregiver failing to secure developmentally appropriate education for a child based on age and ability.

All forms of neglect pose a severe threat to a child’s development and well-being… both short- and long-term.

Of the nearly 1,300 child fatalities in 2012, 69% suffered some form of neglect.

Warning Signs

Sometimes it can be difficult for those concerned about a child’s well-being to know whether or not they should report “suspected” neglect. When making that intervention decision, look for these visible, physical signs that could possibly be clues of neglect. Ask yourself, does this child…

      • Wear soiled clothing or clothing that is significantly too small or large or is often in need of repair?
      • Seem inadequately dressed for the weather?
      • Always seem hungry? Hoard, steal, or beg for food? Or, come to school with little food?
      • Often appear listless and tired with little energy?
      • Frequently report caring for younger siblings?
      • Demonstrate poor hygiene, smell of urine or feces, or have dirty or decaying teeth?
      • Seem emaciated or have a distended stomach (indicative of malnutrition)?
      • Have unattended medical or dental problems, such as infected sores?
      • State that there is no one at home to provide care? (Source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services)

Parents or caregivers who are perpetrators of neglect may also demonstrate behavioral or attitudinal clues. Potential red flags may include…

      • Appear to be indifferent to the child
      • Seem apathetic or depressed
      • Behave irrationally or in a bizarre manner
      • Abuse alcohol or drugs
      • Deny the existence of or blames the child for the child’s problems in school or at home
      • See the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome
      • Look to the child primarily for care, attention, or satisfaction of emotional needs (Source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services)

Do you know of child who may be a victim of neglect?

If you have the slightest suspicion a child is being neglected or harmed in any way, immediately contact:

      • Your local law enforcement agency or dial 911
      • The National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453)
      • Your local Department of Child Services or Child Protective Services Agency

Reports can be made anonymously. If you live outside the United States, click here for a list of agencies who may be able to help.

Are you a parent who needs help?

It’s tough being a parent. Sometimes, we just need someone to talk us through issues or to connect us with other resources. If you are a parent who needs some emotional support and guidance, you may want to contact the National Parent Helpline at 1-855- 4A PARENT (1-855-427-2736).

For additional research data and information about child neglect, visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway, the American Humane Association or download the “Child Maltreatment 2012” report (PDF: 264 pages).

 About Ginger

Raising awareness of the world-wide epidemic of child abuse has become Ginger’s life mission. An impassioned child advocate, trainer, speaker and child forensic interviewer, Ginger regularly blogs about child protection issues and has released a report for parents and other caring adults, “10 Scary Apps.” Ginger can be contacted via her website, “Ginger Kadlec: BeAKidsHero™” at or find her on Facebook at

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