Child Neglect, Social Context, and Educational Outcomes: Examining the Moderating Effects of School and Neighborhood Context

Article excerpt

Research on child neglect has found that neglected children are more likely to experience worse developmental outcomes than non-neglected children. These negative outcomes include antisocial behavior as well as poor school performance. Eco-developmental theory has found that adverse social contexts often worsen these outcomes for neglected and maltreated youths. However, little research has been done on the educational outcomes of neglected children and none of it has employed a national, longitudinal, community sample with an examination of social context. We do so in our research and find that several types of child neglect significantly predict a variety of poor educational outcomes at the bivariate level and that physical and educational neglect were significantly associated with a composite measure of school problems in multivariate analysis. We offer several explanations for our findings and future directions for research.

Keywords: child neglect; educational outcomes; community organization; school organization; eco-developmental theory

Each year, nearly half a million children in the United States are victims of child neglect (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996 ). Neglected children often face severe developmental challenges such as poor school performance (Eckenrode, Laird, & Doris, 1993; Leiter & Johnsen, 1997; Thornberry, Ireland, & Smith, 2001 ) and antisocial behavior (Ireland, Smith, & Thornberry, 2002; Zingraff, Leiter, Myers, & Johnsen, 1993 ). Clearly, neglected children are not confined to families alone but also belong to communities and attend schools. However, few studies of child neglect or child maltreatment in general have examined the moderating role that social context plays in the developmental outcomes of neglected children (Zielinski & Bradshaw, 2006 ).

Research indicates that the ill effects of child neglect are pernicious (Chapple, Tyler, & Bersani, 2005 ) and that child neglect, unlike physical abuse, is most likely a deficit of early childhood, which can produce serious developmental deficits. Current studies of child neglect have focused on individual processes, such as emotional regulation, attachment disorders, and association with deviant peers (Bolger & Patterson, 2001; Bolger, Patterson, & Kupersmidt, 1998; Chapple et al., 2005; De Paul & Arruabarrena, 1995; Herrenkohl, Huang, Tajima, & Whitney, 2003; Maughan & Cicchetti, 2002 ) while the social context of child neglect has rarely been investigated (see Coulton, Korbin, & Su, 1999; Garbarino & Sherman, 1980 for exceptions). The research that has examined the social context of child neglect has done so with global measures of child maltreatment, leaving unanswered the question of whether child neglect is uniquely influenced by social context.

We know that young, disadvantaged mothers are most likely to neglect their children (Coulton et al., 1999 ), but we have little information on the community and school contexts in which neglected children live and go to school. Prior research on child maltreatment using eco-developmental theory has focused primarily on antisocial behavior, with relatively little attention to educational outcomes (Coulton et al., 1999; Garbarino & Sherman, 1980; Stouthamer-Loeber, Wei, Homish, & Loeber, 2002 ). However, as researchers acknowledge, educational difficulties often have long-term repercussions into adulthood. According to ecological theory, children are nested within micro, meso, and macro contexts that exert independent and multiplicative effects on development (Bronfenbrenner, 1977; Garbarino, 1992). These contexts have both proximal and distal effects (Zielinski & Bradshaw, 2006 ) on children's behavior and cross-level interactions are assumed. In such a scenario, school and community organization may act as either a risk or a protective factor for neglected children's educational outcomes. We address the question of whether social context moderates the effects of child neglect on children's educational outcomes with a prospective, longitudinal, community sample of children and their mothers. …