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on neglect, pt 02

This part will roughly cover the issues in Ch.2 of:

Smith, Margaret G., and Rowena Fong. Children of Neglect: When No One Cares. Routledge, 2003. http://www.tandfebooks.com/isbn/9780203493625.

The basic issue discussed in this chapter is the difficulties of defining neglect. Turns out that… my previous description of my experiences and how I was conceptualizing neglect fell into a certain camp that isn”t a broad consensus (since there is no broad consensus).

Smith and Fong identify three general categories for various definitions of neglect: parenting deficits, community defficits, and child defficits. In short form, this is the general definitions they provide for each.

Parenting Deficits:

What these definitions have in common is the concept that parents, usually mothers, demonstrate a failure to provide adequate physical health care, nutrition, and/or age-appropriate supervision for their children; or they may fail to meet the child’s educational, mental health, and/or relationship needs. These failures place the child in harm’s way.1

Community Deficits:

the community deficits definition of child neglect suggests that society neglects its children when it does not provide families with the means to adequately meet their children’s basic needs.2

Child deficits:

this definition of child neglect indicates that neglected children demonstrate outcomes that suggest that they have been harmed in some way, or are in situations that place them at risk for such outcomes.3

The writers, of course, identify various problems with each definition.

The main problem with the parental definition is that it can”t account for cases like when a kid sticks a fork in a socket (bc the mom is cooking or whatever), but is taken to the hospital, etc. Does this inattention qualify as neglect? What if the kid had died?4

The community model has a problem because there are impovershed parents that don”t neglect their kids. It also has that old ‘correlation for causation” problem since nowhere has it been proven that a certain set of circumstances causes neglect5. I do think, however, that there is something good about this in the sense that, yes, communities do contribute to these problems in the sense of not providing adequates contexts that give parents the best chance to care for their children.

The problems with the child-harm definition is that the focus on harm is pretty vague and unclear. What, exactly, counts as harm? Which harms are unique and defining to neglect and neglect only?6

The rest of the chapter is focused on discussing various aspects of what a ‘good” definition of neglect would need to account for.

One of the more interesting ones, for me, was the discussion on chronicity. In my previous post, I expressed a view that neglect is a pattern of non-action. But Smith and Wong raise a good point when they ask whether or not a moment of inattention resulting in a death counts as neglect or not? Is this just an accident?[^7]

I”m still somewhat of an opinion that a pattern of behaviour is kind of necessary for this, because as we”ve seen (at least in the US context) the ‘singular, neglectful” event idea appears to be mainly used to criminalize Black mothers. As in this case where a Black mother had her kid taken away for letting her go to the park on her own.

Even in this case, there was a pattern in the sense that it was the third day that the nine-year-old was at the park by herself. I”d still consider this falling under the ‘community deficit” defintion since the mom was working at the time, it was summer, but likely didn”t have the money for summer/day camp or other supervision. Given that the school year thing is something that came up when more people were involved in agriculture. So… if we are going to continue on with this practise in urban areas but not provide the means for mothers like this to afford supervised childcare… it”s a communal fault.

Obviously this is a… complicated topic and, yes, how you define neglect will have a huge impact on what you consider neglect or not. I do want to say this: under no circumstances should anything I say about neglect be thought of as a ‘recommendation” or proscriptive payment for how child services and/or the legal system should deal with or interpret it. Criminalizing mothers (especially poor mothers of colour who are highly correlated with neglect) isn”t the answer, nor is the state arbitrarily taking kids away an answer I”m really willing to accept. In a perfect world, the response to this would”ve been the state either providing a space for single working mothers like her to safely keep her children while on shift or providing her with the resources to make her own arrangements. And all of this ought to have been available before this incident.

Beyond the issue of chronicity, or patterns of behaviour, I think the question of parental neglect is another tricky issue. In the above case the mother was making the best decision she could. Faced with a choice of either keeping her kid at work – with nothing to do – or letting her go to a nearby park – that regularly has many people in it – she chose the park. Some people are like ‘maybe 9 is too young to be unsurpervised” and… maybe. I certainly was neglected and left unsurpervised at that age.

Interestingly, I don”t think the lack of supervision (at least in my dad”s case) is part of my experience of neglect. Yes, I was frequently running all over the place and spending time at my home with only my sibling (not older enough to qualify as ‘adequate” supervision). But… idk, the freedom and autonomy were something I enjoyed. I personally don”t feel ‘harmed” by it.

Intent also seems… difficult to gauge when discussing things that people didn”t do. In general, we tend to think that actions have intent (with varying levels of relevance to any harm caused by that action). Again, in my previous post I mentioned that I feel neglected (in part) bc of a time in my life where my dad didn”t provide me with adequate food. I”m sure his intent wasn”t nefarious in the sense of twirling his mustache and saying “I will neglect my child by forcing them to make their own lunch but not provide any ingredients with which to do so”. Instead, for my case at least, I think this was because my dad didn”t care and didn”t love me (which is a different story of neglect, btw). This isn”t a type of ‘intent”. At least not for me.

I think the last important aspect to this is the notion of harm. Again, I think a lot of current laws are all about simply criminalizing and punishing Black mothers rather than any sincere attempt to actually help kids. I mean. While in this example she isn”t being charged with any neglect related crime… this sort of thing is generally applicable, I think. For me, I think this is a tragic accident, not a matter of any kind of parental maltreatment. This is also a clear type of ‘harm” that is easy to gauge and determine.

But what of… cognitive/social/emotional harms that don”t necessarily manifest until you”re an adult and find yourself completely unable to have healthy emotional relationships with other adults? Harm like this matters, obviously. But it isn”t necessarily going to be identified early enough for any kind of intervention.

So… all of this to say is that looking towards the literature won”t necessarily give you the guidance you need to figure out if you experienced neglect. One key aspect not discussed in the book is how neglected kids understand/perceive neglect. Ultimately, we are agents, even as kids. And I think that one of the most important things for determining if an experience was neglect or not, is how you feel about it. Not about social norms, not about how your parents think you ought to feel, not about how other people in similar circumstances say they feel about it, but you. Your feelings. Your experiences.

For me, part of how I distinguish this is in thinking about if I feel harmed or hurt from something or other. So far, I”ve given two examples of my own experiences. My dad leaving me unsurprised at very young ages for varying periods of time and my dad not providing adequate food/nutrition. And, for myself, I do think that the line between the two is my perception of how each thing has impacted my life. Sure. I might be wrong about the supervision thing. Maybe it has harmed me in ways that I”m unaware. And maybe I”ll figure this out later and change my mind. This is okay. We are allowed to change our minds.

tl;dr: As with abuse, the primary method/resource you should rely on to understand your experiences is… yourself. There is no ‘objective” standard for what is and isn”t neglect. The difficulty in defining it is part of why researchers just don”t bother studying it.


    1. Smith, Margaret G., and Rowena Fong. Children of Neglect: When No One Cares. Routledge, 2003. http://www.tandfebooks.com/isbn/9780203493625.

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