Understanding Communities of Neglectful Parents: Child Caregiving Networks and Child Neglect

By Roditti, Martha G. | Child Welfare, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

Understanding Communities of Neglectful Parents: Child Caregiving Networks and Child Neglect


Roditti, Martha G., Child Welfare


This article focuses on family social networks and the community of caregivers of neglected children. If neglect is part of family functioning, who watches over the children? Using a case study approach, this study researched 12 children and their parents. Several concepts, such as multiple caregiving and kin keepers, revealed that study children were cared for by many people. Social network mapping used in this study indicated that families were not isolated from the larger community, had various forms of negative and positive social support, were low income, and were involved in substance abuse and domestic violence. Understanding the patterns that emerge from the complex web of family, friends, social service agencies, and the larger social community in which neglected children live can result in better community building.

Although the topic of child maltreatment has received considerable attention in the past 40 years, child neglect has taken second place to the more visible problem of child abuse. Neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment, comprising 59.2% of all victims. It is the most lethal form, with 35.6% of all child fatalities related to neglect, versus 26.3% of fatalities identified as from abuse (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003). Despite this, neglect is the least understood form of child maltreatment and the most intransigent. Although multiple factors contribute to our understanding of neglect, the field has invested less research in this thorny problem than child abuse. The focus of this article is to deconstruct neglect by emphasizing the caregivers of neglected children so as to inform the field about their role in the family.

Child Neglect: Evolving Definitions and Multiple Factors

The concept of neglect is so broad that efforts to define it are ongoing and evolving (Zuravin, 2001). Child neglect appears to be a matter of degree, involves multiple factors, is relative to the observer, involves an act of omission, and varies from community to community depending on community standards. It involves failure to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and supervision, as well as failure to protect children from harm, and in general, it can be a difference in perception between professionals and community members (Coohey, 2003; Rose & Meezan, 1995; Zuravin, 2001). One must consider a variety of cultural practices when defining neglect to clarify whether the neglect is intentional or an application of beliefs and practices that are inappropriate in certain situations (Korbin, 1987).

Researchers suggest that neglect is a multicausal behavior with many factors. Poverty is a central consideration in any discussion of child neglect. The indirect effects of poverty may include increased parental stress, social isolation, single parenting, early child bearing, and residence in communities that are dangerous, are violent, and lack social capital (Coulton, Korbin, Su, & Chow, 1995). Poverty, however, is not the whole explanation of neglect. Indeed, it appears that despite very difficult environments, most Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients and poor families do not neglect their children (Zuravin & Greif, 1989). Many families identified as chronically neglecting their children, however, appear to be the "poorest of the poor," having significantly larger families and more problems with child care, resources, housing, and drugs (Nelson, Saunders, & Landsman, 1993, pp. 669).

To grasp the intricacies of child neglect, it is essential to first examine substance abuse, domestic violence, developmental disability, and mental illness. Since the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, substance abuse has been a factor in a growing number of child maltreatment cases. Some of the literature suggests a strong association between substance abuse and neglect (Donohue, 2004; Gaudin, 1993; Hawley, Halle, & Drasin, 1995; Jaudes, Ekwo, & Van Voorhis, 1995; Scottye, Cash, & Wilke, 2003; Zuravin & Greif, 1989). …

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