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What is child neglect?

Jan 18, 2024

Editor's Note: Community Comment is a periodic column in The Mount Airy News featuring commentary from community leaders in Mount Airy and Surry County. This particular column is part of a monthly series on drug abuse prevention and treatment.

National Child Abuse Prevention Month, observed every April, is a time to acknowledge the importance of families and communities working together to prevent child abuse and neglect. This is a great opportunity to promote the well-being of children and families through awareness and education.

Child neglect is one of the most common forms of child mistreatment. It can affect a child's physical and mental health and can lead to long-term adverse consequences. Child neglect springs from many complex issues, including parental mental health, poverty, and drug and alcohol use.

When you think of a neglected child, what may come to mind is a child going hungry or left at home alone for long periods of time. But neglect comes in many different forms. According to the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are several basic categories of neglect, including:

— Educational neglect: Failing to enroll a child in school, allowing a child to repeatedly skip school, or ignoring a child's special education needs;

— Emotional neglect: Exposing a child to domestic violence or substance use, or not providing affection or emotional support;

– Inadequate supervision: Leaving a child who can't care for themselves home alone, not protecting a child from safety hazards, or leaving the child with inadequate caregivers;

– Medical neglect: Denying or delaying necessary or recommended medical treatment;

– Physical neglect: Failing to care for a child's basic needs like hygiene, clothing, nutrition, or shelter, or abandoning a child.

Sometimes neglect is unintentional, such as the case of a young parent who doesn't understand basic child development. They may not recognize how often their infant needs to be fed or changed or know that a 5-year-old shouldn't be left home alone.

At other times, the parent's mental illness or substance use issues may prevent them from providing their children with adequate care. For example, a parent who is under the influence of drugs may not be aware that their toddler wanders outside alone.


Neglect impacts a child's overall development and health and has physical, psychological, and behavioral consequences. Even if a child is removed from a bad situation, the consequences of neglect can last for a long time and can even lead to high-risk behaviors like substance use.

Health and Development Problems

Malnourishment may impair brain development. A lack of adequate immunizations and medical problems could lead to a variety of health conditions. The National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) discovered that 50.3% of children suffered from special health care needs three years after being removed from a neglectful situation.

Cognitive Impairments

A lack of appropriate stimulation could lead to ongoing intellectual problems. Children with a history of neglect may have academic problems or delayed or impaired language development.

Emotional Problems

Neglect can lead to attachment issues, self-esteem problems, and difficulty trusting others.

Social and Behavioral Problems

Children who are neglected may struggle to develop healthy relationships, and they may experience behavior disorders or disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED). DSED involves socially aberrant behaviors such as wandering away from a caregiver, willingness to depart with a stranger, and engagement in overly familiar physical behaviors (e.g., seeking physical contact such as a hug) with unfamiliar adults. The national survey data determined that more than half of those who were mistreated in youth were at risk of substance use, delinquency, truancy, or unplanned pregnancy.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 75% of all child maltreatment-related deaths include neglect. Fatal incidents of neglect are most likely to occur with children under the age of 7. Neglect fatalities most often stem from a lack of supervision, chronic physical neglect, or medical neglect.


Children who have experienced maltreatment may benefit from therapeutic services to help address their emotions, behaviors, or concerns. Likewise, treatment, such as substance use services or mental health treatment, also may be given to caregivers to help them become better equipped to care for their children. Our children are precious….let's do all we can to protect them.

If you would like to learn more about improving your parental skills or how to help a child in need, please contact Charlotte Reeves, Surry County Office of Substance Abuse Recovery Community Outreach Coordinator, at [email protected]. Visit our website at for more information about substance use disorder and the many resources in our County.

Charlotte Reeves is the Community Outreach Coordinator for Surry County Substance Abuse Recovery Office. She may be reached at 336-401-8218 or [email protected].

Consequences Health and Development Problems Cognitive Impairments Emotional Problems Social and Behavioral Problems Treatment