Child Neglect

Child neglect is a form of child abuse in which a parent or caregiver fails to provide for a child in a way that could result in physical, emotional, psychological, or educational harm. 

Most people consider crimes against children as active abuse, such as a caregiver causing bodily injury or sexually molesting a child. Child neglect is usually passive abuse. For example, it would be neglect for a parent to leave young children at home without food for an extended time.

Child neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment in the United States. In 2021, 76% of child maltreatment victims suffered neglect, compared with 16% who suffered physical abuse and 10% who suffered sexual abuse. 

Child neglect can be incredibly dangerous. Over 1,820 children in the United States died of abuse and neglect in 2021. Surviving neglect victims also experience many psychological issues, from attention and language deficits to reduced mental function and lower academic success. Children need help to escape neglect.

The circumstances associated with child neglect can be complicated. This article discusses the types of neglect, steps each of us can take to combat it, and examples of state criminal laws that seek to hold offenders accountable.

The Different Types of Neglect

Child neglect charges can come from many different situations. Below, you'll find explanations of the most common types of neglect.

Physical Neglect

Physical neglect is the most common form of child neglect. It involves the failure of a caregiver to provide for the basic physical needs associated with a child's welfare, such as food, shelter, clothing, and sanitary living conditions. Most children can't take care of these physical needs alone and it is considered a form of domestic violence.

Physical neglect may also occur when a parent abandons the child or fails to properly supervise the child over an extended period (usually days or weeks). This may be called child endangerment or child abandonment. It can have devastating consequences. Failing to supervise a child can result in physical injury to the child. An unsupervised child is more likely to fall or to engage in activities that may lead to physical harm.

Educational Neglect

Educational neglect occurs when the caregiver doesn't enroll the child in school or encourages or allows the child to skip school. It may also happen when a parent goes "on the run" with the child. This could be in response to an unfavorable court ruling or dispute with another parent.

Sometimes parents are unhappy with school policies and plan to sign their child up for an online school or home school. The child's education will suffer if they don't follow through with these plans. Educational neglect may also occur in low-income families wanting the child to work instead of attending school.

Educational neglect presents actual harm to a child. They may suffer delays in their learning and feel socially isolated when they do not proceed to the next grade with the rest of their classmates.

Psychological or Emotional Neglect

Psychological/emotional neglect is a bit of a catchall category. It may include various behaviors harmful to a child's well-being. Psychological/emotional abuse or neglect includes humiliation, insult, and a failure to provide psychological care for a child.

It can also appear by showing a lack of affection, ignoring the child's basic attention needs, and threatening serious punishment. Many of these behaviors negatively affect a child's mental health. They can be difficult to track because they're somewhat more extreme versions of behaviors one might call bad parenting.

There are more obvious instances of psychological/emotional neglect. This could be isolating behavior, such as not allowing the child to form relationships with other children and adults. It could also be allowing or encouraging the child to use drugs and alcohol. Raising a child around individuals who abuse alcohol or controlled substances can also lead to neglect. Those struggling with substance abuse addictions often cannot focus on the day-to-day responsibilities of caring for a child.

Medical Neglect

Medical neglect occurs when the parent or caregiver fails to provide needed medical or health care for the child. They may delay or outright deny the child the opportunity for treatment. Sometimes medical neglect happens in families who earn too much income to qualify the children for Medicaid and not enough to afford health insurance on their own.

Failing to care for a child's health properly may result in poor hygiene by the child. In some neglect cases, it may lead to harmful delays in basic care. For example, a child may never see a dentist and begin to suffer from tooth decay and gum disease. In another instance, a facial cut that could have healed with stitches may result in disfigurement.

There may be a religious exemption in some states that permits a parent to provide spiritual treatment consistent with the tenets of their faith rather than medical treatment. The exemption may prevent the state from filing charges of child neglect. In most cases, the child protective services caseworker can continue to monitor the situation. They can seek a court order for medical treatment if a child faces serious physical harm or death.

Neglect by Sexual Exploitation

More states have begun to recognize the harmful neglect in cases where a parent or caregiver permits a child to engage in activities involving sexual exploitation. When a minor child (younger than 18) becomes involved in sex trafficking, they suffer from child neglect.

If a parent or caregiver permits this activity by a child, it is usually for some financial or other benefit for the parent or caregiver. If the child is otherwise engaged in sexual activity for hire or in exchange for food or shelter, this still provides evidence of neglect. In such situations, children are never truly "emancipated" in the eyes of the law. More often than not, there is an adult caregiver who is neglecting their basic needs.

What Can You Do? Report Child Neglect

Child neglect is a serious issue. Reporting neglect is critical to helping neglected children obtain help and thrive in a healthy environment. Anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect can contact local child services authorities or local law enforcement and make a report. The intervention that follows could be life-saving.

If you witness child neglect or are aware of ongoing neglect, consider reporting it to your local child protective services (CPS) office or police department. In 18 states, if you witness or suspect neglect, you are legally required to report the neglect, no matter your profession.

Almost all states also identify certain persons as "mandatory reporters" of child abuse and neglect. These are usually members of professions that regularly engage with children. The category of mandatory reporters will vary from state to state. It often includes:

  • Teachers and other school officials
  • Social workers
  • Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers
  • Police officers
  • Counselors
  • Ministers and other religious service providers
  • Childcare workers

Depending on state law, failing to report neglect may result in misdemeanor charges. Most laws provide immunity to a good faith report. In other words, you won't get into legal trouble if you report neglect and it's later found that there wasn't neglect, as long as you reported neglect in good faith and reasonably believed it was occurring.

Sometimes, child neglect situations may not lead to criminal charges. They may be more circumstantial or based on temporary conditions. In these instances, CPS workers can assist parents in addressing their issues with an appropriate care plan.

When parents cooperate to resolve the problems that caused the neglect, they may avoid criminal charges. There may be a reason to file actions in court based on family law. The parties may agree to changes in child custody and parental rights to adjust their parenting schedule so children will not be left unsupervised.

State Law Differences

The applicable laws may vary considerably, depending on your state. In some states, child neglect and child abuse charges may be set out in different statutes. In other states, they may be located in one criminal offense.

Some abuse and neglect laws are very general. Others provide more specific parameters for what is legal and what is not. When confronting an allegation of child neglect, you will want to know what laws apply in your state and get legal advice from a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer.

In many states, child neglect may be classified as a misdemeanor crime. Offenders convicted of a misdemeanor crime may face the possibility of jail time (6 months or a year, depending on the jurisdiction). They may also be ordered to pay fines, participate in community service, or complete a probation term.

Ohio has a crime called "Nonsupport," which makes it illegal to abandon or fail to adequately support your child. This crime begins as a misdemeanor of the first degree. If your criminal record includes a conviction under the law and you then commit the crime again, it can be enhanced to a felony crime. If you have a court order of child support and fail to pay it, you may face misdemeanor charges. If you fail to pay for an accumulated period of 26 weeks out of 104 weeks, it can also be enhanced to a felony offense.

Ohio also has a crime called "Endangering Children," which prohibits a broader range of conduct that can include neglect. In this statute, a parent or guardian of a child shall not create a substantial risk to the health or safety of the child by violating a duty of care, protection, or support.

The law makes it illegal to drive a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs (DUI) with a child in the vehicle, prohibits anyone from exposing a child to drug trafficking or sexual exploitation, and provides for the enhancement of the crime to a felony based on the circumstances. Exposing a child to drugs or sexual exploitation begins as a felony. Other neglect becomes a felony when the offender has a prior conviction or the child has suffered serious physical harm.

Some states provide exclusions from a nonsupport or neglect charge when a parent or legal guardian can demonstrate:

  • They provided support that was reasonably within their means
  • The cause of the inadequate care was outside of their control

This type of exclusion or defense may be found in Pennsylvania. The state provides an exclusion there based on environmental factors. Such factors include inadequate housing, income, clothing, and medical care that are beyond the control of the parent or caregiver. If one or more of these factors form the basis of the neglect, then the state will not designate the case as one of child abuse or neglect.

A common child neglect scenario arises when a parent or caregiver leaves a young child home alone. States vary on how they address this issue. Most states do not set a specific age when a parent can leave a child unsupervised at home. A parent needs to weigh several factors, and the child's age is just one of them.

In Maryland, state law does provide specific guidance. Maryland makes it a misdemeanor offense for a caregiver to leave a child who is under age 8 unattended in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle unless the caregiver provides someone 13 years or older to protect the child.

Add some aggravating factors to the scenario and leaving the 8-year-old child without supervision may become the crime of child abuse or neglect, such as the child being left alone in a home with a loaded gun accessible in the bedroom closet or illegal drugs sitting on the coffee table.


Are You Facing Criminal Charges? Call a Criminal Defense Attorney

It's not always clear whether a person's actions amount to child neglect. Each family situation is unique. Some accepted practices from the past could border on neglect today. If you or someone you know is concerned about criminal charges related to the abuse of a child, consider speaking with a qualified criminal defense attorney. An attorney can review the facts of your case in light of the law in your state and provide options to you.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Complex criminal defense situations usually require a lawyer
  • Defense attorneys can help protect your rights
  • A lawyer can seek to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties

Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions. Many attorneys offer free consultations.


If you need an attorney, find one right now.