Addressing the Root Causes of Child Neglect Jennifer Jones, Bart Klika, and Melissa Merrick
Introduction Child neglect has been overarchingly defined as acts of omission whereby a caregiver fails to provide basic needs and services that a child requires for optimal safety, health, and well-being. However, creating the conditions that support caregivers’ abilities to meet the many needs of their children, particularly in the context of caregivers’ own needs and histories of adversity, relies on commitments and actions by every sector to redefine and reinterpret what is meant by neglect. Often, child neglect is confused with poverty even in states that prohibit the use of removal due to poverty alone. 1 Children and families of color are more likely to be impacted by poverty and to come to the attention of the child welfare system for neglect and other forms of child maltreatment. While the dominant narrative in this country is to blame such families, true transformation lies in understanding, naming, and transforming the processes and inequities that make these negative outcomes for families more likely, such as structural and systemic racism and poverty. To achieve a child and family well-being system that prioritizes race equity, we must co-create that system with those children, youth, and families who have been impacted by the deficiencies of the current system and determine if reforming child neglect laws is one of the answers. There is a widely held belief among proponents of reforming our nation’s child welfare system that a key element of that transformation is changing the definition of child neglect laws in this country. This paper will explore the contribution of changing the definitions of child neglect to this transformation and make recommendations for the comprehensive policy and practice efforts we must prioritize to achieve optimal health, safety, and well- being for all children and families. The paper
begins with a brief historical overview of child abuse and neglect and the ways in which the issue of physical abuse was prioritized in policy and practice responses over the issue of child neglect. Next, we review data on rates of child neglect and discuss its relationship with poverty. In doing so, we highlight the disproportionate rate of children and families of color living in poverty and encountering the child welfare system. We then discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated child and family needs and ways in which concrete and economic supports have mitigated some of the effects associated with increased adversity. In closing, we provide recommendations for the creation of a child and family well-being system which includes changes in statutory definitions of child neglect, but also prioritizes practice and programmatic strategies along with a robust policy agenda to support all children and families. Historical Context of Child Neglect Many attribute Dr. Henry Kempe as a pioneer in raising public awareness about the physical harms created by extreme and harsh parenting or—what today is referred to as child physical abuse. For one of the first times, Kempe linked unexplained injuries to children (e.g., broken bones, bruising) presenting in hospital settings with dangerous and potentially fatal parenting practices. In examining X-ray data from approximately seventy hospitals nationwide and conducting interviews with district attorney offices, Kempe and colleagues ______________ 1 Conneticut, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin.
94 | FIJ Quarterly Spring 2022
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