The Danger of Neglecting Neglect

Learning From Practice

Central to all social work courses is field work, with a requirement that half the course be practice-based, a factor that distinguishes social work education from the majority of degree programmes. It is placements that allow students to make the connections between theory and practice and for many students it is the placements that are the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of the course.

My final social work placement was in a city-based child care team. It was a busy closely-knit team, who made me feel welcomed and involved from day one. Involved is not a euphemism for frantic, as I was well supervised, supported and taught by a very experienced and competent student supervisor.

A Case For a Student?

Like many students starting a placement I was keen to please and willing to take on new cases. What often happened on these occasions is that the student is often given an ‘old’ neglect case, with the expectation that as a keen new practitioner the student could provide new insights and potentially a new sense of direction for a family that had been on the team’s cases for many years. I was no exception and from reading the files that were presented to me I realised the case I had been allocated had been managed at some stage by what seemed like all members of the team and many of the students that had been before.

The family I was allocated had been open to the team for years. It had generally been managed by the team more as a holding operation rather than a case that had the potential for change. As a diligent and committed student I quickly made contact with the family and worked out an intervention plan. The period I am talking about was when the Children Act 1969 was still in operation.

This allowed me to explore the delights of ‘intermediate treatment’ (or I.T.) and involve the two young people in an activity-based group work programme which the team was running for children and young people who were under 10. For those of you young enough not to remember I.T., it was that seen as intermediate between care and supervision. In my memory there were some very interesting projects, albeit most of them were never evaluated.

Recognising Neglect as Child Abuse

Reminiscence is a wonderful thing, though in this situation it takes me away from the central element of my thesis which is that neglect is a category of abuse that is not given enough attention – which is rather odd, given that it is the biggest problem in child protection and with some estimates that up to 10% of all children in the U.K. suffer from neglect.

Neglect in this context is defined as follows:

“Child neglect is the ongoing failure to meet a child’s basic needs – from providing a secure environment, food and clothing to making them feel loved and safe”[i].

Neglect is so often seen as something that is about the ‘state of the house’ –  the quality of the carpets and bed linen, for example – so often concentrating on physical aspects of care rather than being specific as to what type of neglect are we talking about and how culpable are the parents or carers in the situation.

The latter may seem a strange comment given the importance of the subject; however, in some neglect cases the abuse that has taken place may be due to omission rather than commission, due in large part to the lack of knowledge of the carer(s) rather than any deliberate act to perpetrate abuse. There are a number of definitions of abuse, including physical, emotional and social, and being clear about what constitutes the element of neglect helps social workers to avoid drift and allows for a more focused intervention.

Another aspect that needs to be considered in this area is that because the family may be known for some time, in many cases for years, standards may slip, i.e., what is deemed acceptable for a neglect case may on occasions be unacceptable in other cases. Longevity may lead to drift and an acceptance of poor quality child care, and in part this may be because neglect cases are often seen as lower priority than other types of abuse such as physical abuse or child sexual abuse.

The Prevalence of Neglect

A recent report by Action for Children on child neglect[ii] highlighted the fact that “The majority of frontline professionals interviewed have come into contact with a child they believe has been neglected”. The size of the sample used was 1,926 made up of professionals from:

primary school teachers

primary school assistants

nursery workers

nursery assistants


health visitors


primary school and nursery-based nurses.

Although this was not a survey that included social workers and even secondary school teachers, it is significant in showing the potential numbers in this area. It also shows that if the issue is to be addressed it requires a multidisciplinary holistic intervention. These families require considerable skills to be managed properly to avoid drift and complacency and not merely ‘holding cases’. They are not cases that should be given to the least experienced but the most experienced with good quality supervision that keeps practitioners focused.

[i] Action for Children (2009) Child Neglect Experiences from the Frontline  (accessed 26/11/2009)[ii] Action for Children (2009) Child Neglect Experiences from the frontline  (accessed 26/11/2009)

1 thought on “The Danger of Neglecting Neglect”

  1. Sometimes it’s the center-based child care that is the problem. There are so many poor-quality infant and toddler programs in the Deep South States that do not support the needs of the very young children in their care. I just quit a job that had a large two-year-old program. We had about forty children in the 24-36 month age group and they were housed in four classrooms. There was one day care teacher in each room and a single, shared bathroom that adjoined the next class. There was way too much privacy for the day care teacher and her ten two-year-olds. There were no cameras and no audio surveillance systems in place to monitor the day care teacher in action. There was this one woman at this very large center who would just terrorize the two-year-olds. This mean bellegerent day care teacher just hollered and threatened the kids all day long. The kids weren’t allowed to play with the toys that were neatly arranged in bins on low shelves; the teacher didn’t want those toys “messed up”. The kids stayed in their seats for an hour at a time. Then they’d move to line up for the toilet for potty training, then they’d go and sit on the rug. The kids were never allowed to walk around the room and have “free play”. They sat and sat and sat. They were either sitting on the rug, on the potty-chairs, or on the rug. Each child had a letter to sit on when they were seated on the alphabet rug. The teacher read them a story and barked out the lyrics from a few children’s songs in a “cheer” like fashion while the children sat quietly. This tyrannical woman didn’t like to sing, she just barked out the lyrics sort of like a drill sergeant barking out a cheer while marching with his platoon. She was required to follow a lesson plan and this was the way she taught her little students. She just delivered a well-rehearsed spiel of bible quotes and these chanted lyrics. I ended up reporting this woman to the diretor, but the director sided with this verbally and emotionally abusive day care worker. The director liked it that this woman “could really keep those two-year-olds in line.” I’m sorry, but she was treating those kids like they were were as worthless as dirt. She was trying to break their spirit so they’d be easier to control.

    I ended up quitting the job without notice. I did follow up by writing a letter to the Pastor of this very large church and I also wrote a report for Child Protective Services. I have friends who attend services at this church and they told me that, so far, nothing has changed at this very large faith-based child care facility.

    I would never ever recommend putting a child in a center-based program unless the child was over three years old. I would only use a facility that had intercom monitoring at the least, and I would prefer that there be cameras in the classrooms for observation from the director’s office. I just wouldn’t trust putting a toddler or two-year-olds in center-based day care. These younger ones don’t have their voices yet to complain about the abuse they may tolerating at the hands of these thuggish, punitive, burnt-out, control-freak day care workers.


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