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On Neglect, Pt 03

As with the other posts in this series, the citations come from:

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

Chapter three of the book covers the various theories for what causes child neglect. As in all kinds of child maltreatment, there is no single theory that adequately explains why this happens (just as there is no consensus on how to even define nelgect). Smith & Wong structure their discussion around the same divisions they used in the previous chapter: parental deficiences, social ecology theory, interaction between factors within the family and without, and the how neglect harms children (30).

1) Parental deficiencies

Parental characteristics

Here is how research characterizes parents who neglect children:

In general, then, the research literature suggests that the neglecting parent presents the following picture. She is female and likely to have had little formal education. She personifies helplessness and hopelessness. Withdrawn and impulsive, this single mother seems incompetent, is more than likely to abuse/be addicted to mind-altering substances, and has trouble working toward reaching any goals. One must keep in mind, however, that this “neglect profile” is based on the limited pool of studies regarding neglectful parents and these findings were not consistent across those studies. (34)

I think the most interesting thing about this is how it encodes a sexist bias. You can tell from how these studies are framed (and the overall stats the book has on referred cases of child neglect) that mothers are largely blamed for neglect. Because they are either the primary caretakers or ought to be the primary caretakers.

There”s absolutely no mention of the role of fathers, or whether or not they even are present. Which is something that fascinates me, since if there are two parents why is it that they both don”t bear equal responsibility for neglect? Why is it that absent fathers (however construed1) are considered… ‘normal” such that their absence and lack of participation in caretaking isn”t considered neglect?

Child characteristics

Now this section is interesting because it suggests that some children are more vulnerable to being neglected than others.

Here are some of the characteristics identified by some research (34-35):

  • prematurity and low birth weight
  • ‘handicapping” conditions (ie, disability – of all kinds)
  • boys are more likely to be emotionally neglected
  • children older than 6 more likely to be emotionally neglected
  • children under 11 are more likely to be physically neglected

Smith & Wong do mention that trying to come up with consistent characteristics for children is difficult because some of these things might arise as a consequence of neglect (eg, that early emotional neglect leads to a mental illness in adolescence which leads to medical neglect). All of this to say, more or less, that while there are some broad trends, characteristics of children are the least likely thing to be cause of parental neglect (ie, we aren”t ‘asking” for it).

Familial Characteristics

Oh. Hey:

In the absence of fathers, mothers bear the onus of being the “neglectful parent,” perhaps because they are the only parent around. Thus a gender bias may exist in the child neglect field, blaming mothers in the absence of fathers. Fathers who abandon their children are certainly no less neglectful than the single mom who is left to bear the burdens of single parenting, yet little attention is paid to absent fathers in the child neglect literature. (37)

And yet, this book still reinscribes this bias because in the section about ‘parental” characteristics they are really only talking about mothers. And this section, ‘familial characteristics”, is the first one to mention fathers specifically and only for a single paragraph.

So one thing that seems clear from the scarce resources on neglect is that we don”t really have any fucking clue about the role of fathers and how they may or may not embody different characteristics than mothers.

In any case, this section concludes that there isn”t a clear profile for families where neglect happens beyond “the multiple problems that are encountered by these families and their lack of personal resources to deal with them” (37).

Intergenerational neglect

As with abuse, some posit that there could be an integenerational aspect to neglect. As with abuse, the conclusion is largely that it might be a risk factor, however most neglected children do not grow up to become neglectful parents (39).

Smith & Wong also present four factors that make the possible difference between those mothers who do go on to neglect vs those who don”t:

These factors consist of (a) a nurturing adult in childhood who gave them a view of themselves and others that was different than the one derived from their maltreating caretaker(s); (b) a supportive partner at the time of the birth of their child(ren); © therapeutic interventions that enabled them to resolve childhood issues, which allowed them to achieve greater emotional stability and maturity; and (d) the integration of their childhood histories into a coherent view of self. (39)

Of particular interest, for me, is the fourth factor which is one of the key things for not transferring on abuse, as I discussed in a different post. The article I reviewed there also cited the ability to understand that your experiences were maltreatment is the single most important thing for not continuing the ‘cycle” of child maltreatment.

It appears that this is true (to some extent) of both neglect and abuse.

Cultural differences

This… I”m not actually going to get into. While the differences that are suggested between various racial families are somewhat interesting, I just… no.

Conclusions for now…

This chapter is a long one and I”m going to stop reading here for today because this is already a lot of information.

In terms of what we”ve learned… I honestly think that it isn”t much at all. Given the massive sexist bias in the literature concerning both parental and familial defficiencies, I don”t think any of the information discussed in those sections is likely to be of much use. Pretty much all of the have a working assumption that mothers (regardless of whether or not it is a single parent home) are more or less 100% responsible for caretaking, such that if neglect is happening then its their fault.

This isn”t meaningful information for a lot of reasons. Primarily because there are a lot of two parent homes with a mother and a father. None of this information tells us much of anything about these situations. There are also, increasingly, two parent homes with either two fathers or two mothers. Again, this is meaningless for that. And, although not very common, there is my situation of having a single parent home where that parent is the father.

The information about factors that make some children more vulnerable than others is interesting, but not really anything surprising imo. Although, I did think it was interesting to note the age cutoffs for certain kinds of neglect. The fact that disabled children are more vulnerable to neglect is not at all surprising. Not even a little.


  1. What I mean by this is anything from complete abandonement to two parent households where the father essentially plays a little to no role in (direct) caretaking. They might provide financial support but not much else. I"m also curious to know why whenever a father isn"t performing at least half of the caretaking this isn"t considered a deficiency in their parenting but a mother"s failure to do 100% of the caretaking is considered a failure (ie, neglect).