Neglect is the most prevalent form of abuse in the UK with almost half of all children being on child protection plans for neglect.

Statistics compiled by the NSPCC at the end of 2020 suggest that almost half of all children on child protection plans in England are on plans because of concerns about neglect. Research from 2011 (the most recent comprehensive research available) suggests that 1 in 10 children will have experienced neglect (Radford et al, 2011) – i.e. potentially 3 children in every class of 30. Neglect can be life threatening and should be treated with as much urgency as other categories of abuse.

We often intervene too slowly with neglect, sometimes because no single incident acts as a trigger, with concerns usually building up over time.  At other times referrals are made to other agencies and perhaps are not taken sufficiently seriously. We need to understand the cumulative effects of neglect and actively review the concerns to understand the level of harm caused.

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Definition of neglect

Neglect is 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.

Keeping Children Safe in Education

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Types of neglect

Neglect can include:

  • educational – not ensuring the child receives/attends appropriate education.
  • physical – failure to provide for basic needs e.g. food, shelter or ensure safety or ensure adequate supervision.
  • emotional – failure to meet a child’s need for stimulation or nurture/love. This overlaps with emotional abuse and may involve ignoring, intimidating or humiliating the child.
  • medical – a failure to ensure a child receives appropriate medical care, including dental care, or ignoring medical advice. It includes the failure of the parent/carer to take their child to appointments.
  • adolescent – the failure to provide adequate parenting and support for teenagers meaning they are often left to deal with issues by themselves (e.g. relating to sourcing material items, dealing with emotions, levels of supervision and general well-being).

A common form of abuse …

Neglect should therefore be considered as the most common form of abuse and can have a serious and long-term impact on the child. Children who suffer neglect may also suffer from other forms of abuse as well.

Sometimes it is because parents/carers won’t look after their children and sometimes because they are unable to. Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance misuse.

Neglect may involve the failure of the care giver to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter, including the exclusion of the child from the home. It may also be the caregiver failing to protect a child from emotional harm or danger and/or failing to provide adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate carers).

The failure of the caregiver to provide access to appropriate medical care or treatment are also considered to be forms of neglect.

Whilst it is the most common form of abuse it is also one of the most difficult to recognise as there is often no single sign and so professionals wait for a pattern of neglect to build up over time.  Maintaining a chronology of concerns is therefore key.

The impact of coronavirus

Covid-19 has led to significant strains within families, often linked to financial and job security which has meant that many families are in difficult situations involving poverty and homelessness.  Other issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic include parental mental ill health and parental substance misuse.  Whilst families may not therefore be deliberately neglecting the needs of their children, it may not be possible to meet their needs and therefore could become neglect by omission (i.e. it is not a deliberate act).

Physical indicators of neglect

  • Constant hunger
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Poor dental health
  • Skin rashes, lice etc
  • Constant tiredness
  • Inadequate and/or dirty ill- fitting clothing
  • Untreated medical problems
  • Under/overweight

Behavioural indicators of neglect

  • Social isolation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Frequent lateness or nonattendance at school
  • Missed medical /dental appointments
  • Destructive tendencies
  • Poor relationships with peers
  • Compulsive stealing/scavenging

Groups vulnerable to neglect

Some vulnerabilities include:

  • parents/carers out of the house for prolonged periods
  • poverty
  • parents/carers with substance/alcohol misuse issues
  • parents/carers with mental health issues or disabilities
  • children with disabilities
  • children being left on their own for prolonged periods or being left in the care of siblings or unsuitable carers

As with all forms of abuse, any child can be a victim of neglect regardless of whether they fit any of the criteria on this list or not.  Therefore if you have concerns you should flag them up.

Children left home alone


The NSPCC note that there have been rising reports of children being left home alone over the school holidays.  Whilst there is no minimum age when a child can be left on their own, there are expectations about the child being mature enough to be able to deal with problems that may arise.

What to do?

Consider how vulnerabilities might impact on individuals – think about the increased risk of exploitation and the barriers in place to attainment or to making safe decisions. Talk to children in advance about holiday periods and assess the risks of ‘holiday hunger’, loneliness and neglect. Recognise the stresses around key times of year such as the commercial pressures around Christmas.

Check young people have safe relationships – in their family, with their peers and with your staff. Create the environment where it is OK to talk, even about the most difficult things.

Spot the signs and know what to do – use the checklists above, your safeguarding procedures and be confident to raise neglect as a possibility. Take action – and keep taking action until you know they are safe.

Keep a chronology – neglect is not necessarily about one event but an accumulation of a number of different concerns and observations.  It is therefore important that these are noted at the time to allow the wider picture to be seen


  • Growing up neglected: a multi-agency response to older children

    A report by Ofsted and the other inspectorates highlights neglected adolescents are not receiving the support they need.

  • Neglect in affluent families

    Neglect occurs in families across class barriers, slipping under the radar of safeguarding services,  and may be much more widespread than thought alongside exposure to alcohol and substance misuse, domestic abuse and sexual abuse. This 2017 paper by Professor Claudia Bernard from Goldsmiths explores some of the barriers to identification and intervention together with factors that make a difference  to authoriatitive practice.

  • Nuffield Foundation – Protecting young children at risk of abuse and neglect

    In this review, we draw on a large and complex body of evidence to explore changing patterns of abuse and neglect in early childhood, including the latest evidence on the impact of COVID-19. We highlight connections and tensions in the evidence and consider how outcomes for children can be improved through a more holistic and collaborative approach to support for young children and their families.

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  • Training resources for DSLs to use in team meetings
  • Reference documents for additional information
  • Handout for staff summarising neglect
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
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