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What is neglect?

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...the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development.

What are the signs and indicators of neglect?

There are many signs of neglect, some of which may not be immediately obvious. Some signs of neglect are physical, including:

  • Constant tiredness

  • Constant hunger

  • Poor personal hygiene

  • Preventable or untreated health/dental issues

  • Weight and growth issues, including being overweight

  • Skin issues, e.g. frequent rashes, flea bites

  • Wearing dirty, unsuitable or ill-fitting clothing

Behavioural indicators or other signs you might hear and see include:

  • Poor attendance and punctuality

  • Missed medical/dental appointments

  • Social isolation or poor relationships with peers

  • Stealing and/or scavenging

  • Low self-esteem or being withdrawn, depressed or anxious

  • Poor concentration

  • Frequently left alone/unsupervised

  • Living in inadequate accommodation

What types of neglect are there?

Neglect can fall into different broad categories. Child can experience one, some or all of these:

Physical - this includes a failure to provide for a child's basic needs such as food, shelter, and safety. This may include exclusion from home, abandonment, or inadequate supervision, leading to potential harm. It can also occur during pregnancy due to maternal substance abuse.

Emotional - this involves a failure to nurture, protect, or stimulate a child emotionally, and it overlaps with emotional abuse. This neglect may manifest as ignoring, intimidating, isolating, or humiliating the child, impacting their self-esteem and mental well-being.

Medical - this is when a parent or caregiver fails to ensure that a child receives appropriate medical care and treatment, including dental care, or disregards medical advice. This can result in untreated health conditions and compromise the child's overall health.

Adolescent - this refers to the failure to provide adequate parenting and support for teenagers, leaving them to navigate challenges independently. This neglect may include issues such as sourcing clothing and food, finding shelter, managing emotions, and accessing necessary support services.

Educational - this involves failing to ensure that a child receives or attends appropriate education, which can hinder their academic progress and future opportunities.

What puts pupils at greater risk of neglect?

Several factors contribute to heightened vulnerability to neglect among pupils. 

Living in poverty significantly increases the risk of neglect, as caregivers may struggle to meet basic needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare due to financial constraints. Moreover, caregivers with a lack of support (or a limited support network) may face challenges in accessing resources and assistance. This includes where domestic abuse (or other forms of abuse) are present within the household.

Where caregivers are struggling with their own issues, this can increase a child's vulnerability to experiencing neglect. Substance abuse issues among caregivers can significantly impair their ability to provide adequate care and supervision. Caregivers with mental health difficulties or learning disabilities may struggle to meet their child's needs effectively, further contributing to the risk of neglect.

Likewise, where a child has a disability or complex health needs, this may increase dependency on caregivers, rendering them more susceptible to neglect if adequate support is not provided. Being in care as a looked-after child can also heighten vulnerability to neglect, as these children may face instability. Similarly, pupils seeking asylum may experience additional challenges accessing essential resources and support networks, increasing their risk of neglect.

Be aware...

The NSPCC identifies neglect as the most common form of child abuse in the UK, with 1 in 10 children being neglected. Concerns around neglect are present in approximately half of all child protection plans and the number of recorded child cruelty offences is increasing. 

Identifying neglect can be challenging, as there is often no single trigger, and professionals may need to observe patterns over time before taking action. This delay in response can result in a failure to address neglect promptly, underscoring the need for heightened vigilance and proactive intervention.

It's crucial to recognise that neglect is not always deliberate; families facing poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, or mental health issues may struggle to meet their children's needs despite their best intentions. Additionally, neglect extends beyond the failure to provide basic needs, encompassing situations where pupils are left alone excessively or entrusted to unsuitable carers, such as siblings. These 'carers' may not be able to meet a child's needs (or their own needs).

Neglect is not confined to families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds but we might make an assumption that this is the case. However, neglect can occur in any household where there is a lack of parental interest or supervision. This highlights the importance of considering a wide range of factors when assessing neglect risks and implementing appropriate interventions to safeguard children's wellbeing.

Lastly, be aware that neglect can occur in pregnancy due to maternal substance abuse, further emphasising the importance of early intervention and support for vulnerable families.

Take action

  • Keep detailed chronologies to build a picture and act quickly.

  • Consider how to support families experiencing poverty.

  • Plan ahead to support at pressure points in the year (e.g. summer holidays, Christmas).

  • Follow the safeguarding procedures and speak to the DSL.

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Ready to train your staff?

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Neglect: Safeguarding Training Bundle

This flexible pack contains four resources to support your training on the child protection issue of neglect:

  1. A ready-made safeguarding training PowerPoint presentation on neglect.

  2. Two fictional safeguarding scenarios on neglect that staff can discuss by identifying signs and indicators of harm in order to share how they'd respond.

  3. A set of quiz questions on neglect to assess staff understanding and a discussion prompt to get staff thinking.

  4. A one-page, one-minute safeguarding snapshot to display or disseminate as a follow-up to the training. 

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