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April 2013Vol. 14, No. 3The Science of Neglect

In 2010, 78 percent of the half a million reported cases of child maltreatment were reports of neglect. Research over the past 30 years has shown that young children who experience neglect are at risk for several negative outcomes, including cognitive delays, academic struggles, social adjustment difficulties, and more. A white paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child outlines research on the science of neglect, from neuroscience and molecular biology to the behavioral and social sciences, to promote greater public understanding of this threat to child well-being. 

The authors define neglect as the ongoing disruption or significant absence of caregiver responsiveness. While the four most common forms of neglect (physical, medical, educational, and psychological) tend to co-occur, judging the severity of neglect and determining when to intervene remains difficult. Understanding the science of neglect can help ameliorate these difficulties.

The paper describes four types of diminished responsiveness and their consequences to provide a framework for developing effective interventions that can protect children.

  • Occasional inattention is categorized as irregular or reduced attention in a usually responsive environment, which requires no intervention.
  • Chronic understimulation is defined as ongoing and diminished responsiveness and developmental enrichment and can cause a range of developmental delays. Interventions addressing the needs of caregivers along with high-quality early care and education for children can be effective.
  • Severe neglect in a family context is the significant absence of caregiver responsiveness to a child's needs, which can cause a range of negative outcomes that include developmental impairments and other threats to child well-being. Helpful interventions that ensure caregiver responsiveness and address development needs of the child are needed.
  • Severe neglect in an institutional setting includes too few caregivers for several children and no individual adult-child relationships, which can cause severe cognitive, physical, and psychological developmental deficiencies. In these cases, removal as soon as possible and placement in a stable environment is the suggested intervention.

Promising interventions, such as attachment and biobehavioral interventions, child-parent psychotherapy, and treatment foster care for preschoolers are described as effective for children who have experienced significant neglect. The paper also outlines a number of public misconceptions about the effects of neglect and implications for policy and programs.

The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain is available on the Center on the Developing Child website:

Related Item

The January 2013 issue of Practice Notes, a publication of the North Carolina Division of Social Services (NCDSS) Child Welfare Services Statewide Partnership, is centered on the theme "Child Neglect: Impact and Interventions." The issue highlights the impact of neglect on child brain development and outlines promising evidence-based interventions.

Practice Notes is available on the NCDSS website:  (199 KB)