Child neglect is a major child protection concern worldwide. Its effects have shown to be the most harmful to children. We need to re-frame our work to better protect children from neglect in humanitarian settings. The Minimum Standards on Child Protection in Humanitarian Settings (CPMS) defines child protection as “the prevention and response to abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence against children.” Yet neglect is not adequately covered within the CPMS, nor in the ways that child protection in emergencies are commonly programmed.
Neglect cannot be reduced to work with unaccompanied and separated children (UASC). Unfortunately, children with their primary caregivers are also neglected.
Neglect cannot also be reduced to primary caregivers failing to meet children’s basic or physical needs. This disregards the responsibilities of other key duty-bearers such as the State.
We also cannot ignore that neglect involves the lack of psychosocial stimulation and support with stress regulation.
In humanitarian contexts, caregivers and their communities need a stronger, ecological response to ensuring that children are protected from neglect and not suffer the severe, long-term consequences on children's lives and future.
Neglect as a child protection harm touches upon multiple, current and proposed standards (such as UASC, dangers and injuries, family strengthening, psychosocial support, child friendly spaces, case management, protecting excluded children, to name a few).
Even though neglect is one of the most prevalent forms of child maltreatment in contexts where data on neglect exists, it has been less studied globally than other forms of child maltreatment such as sexual and physical abuse.
In the United States, approximately two-thirds of families in the child protection system are there due to neglect (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2006).
In one study, the global prevalence of self-reported physical neglect is estimated to be at 16.3% and self-reported child emotional neglect to be at 18.4% with no apparent gender differences.
In some countries, the annual prevalence rates of child-neglect behaviours vary between 20.6% and 29.4% according to children's age.
We do not know the prevalence in humanitarian contexts. A study is required. Yet it should be safe to assume that in humanitarian contexts, children and their caregivers are under significant stress with their coping strategies under strain.
The short and long-term impact of ignoring this child protection harm is profound, including:
Improper brain development
Impaired cognitive (learning ability) and socio-emotional (social and emotional) skills
Lower language development
Higher risk for heart, lung and liver diseases, obesity, cancer, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol
Children particularly at risk are:
Children with disabilities
Children without parental care
Children whose primary caregivers are struggling with mental illness or under profound stress (i.e. humanitarian setting)
Children living in poverty
Watch InBrief: Science of Neglect
“Early experiences literally shape the architecture of the developing brain for better or for worse. And when children live in an environment that is relatively responsive and predictable, where there’s a sense of security and safety, it promotes the development of healthy brain architecture. It promotes the development of a healthy immune system. It promotes the development of healthy cardiovascular function and metabolic regulatory systems, creating a strong foundation for lifelong health and effective development. In contrast, when children grow up in an environment of constant threat, constant burdens, heavy burdens that influence everyday function, the stress system is activated excessively. It produces what we call toxic stress, and that disrupts the development of brain circuits during their critical periods. It disrupts the cardiovascular system. It disrupts the immune system and creates the foundation for a greater risk for a whole host of physical and mental health problems and difficulties and learning. It all comes down to a very simple message, which is early experiences literally shape our biology, create either a strong or a weak foundation for all the health, learning, and behavior that follow for a lifetime.” - Jack Shonkoff
For more information, we encourage you to review Harvard's Center on the Developing Child page on neglect.