What Child Care Providers Need to Know about Identifying Neglect

Toddler with dirty face


Neglect is the most common type of child abuse. Child care providers need to know how to identify neglect in young children.

Things Child Care Providers Should Know about Neglect

Child neglect is a failure to provide for children’s basic needs. Neglect can be physical (hunger or inadequate clothing in cold weather), medical (refusal to seek health care when a child clearly needs medical attention), educational (failure to enroll a child of school age), or emotional (chronic or extreme spouse abuse in the child’s presence).

Neglect tends to be ongoing and chronic. Severe neglect often results in death, particularly in the case of very young children. Look for patterns when you suspect neglect. Do the signs of neglect occur rarely or frequently? Are they chronic (occurring almost every day), periodic (happening after weekends, vacations, or absences), or episodic (seen once or twice during a specific event).

Identifying Signs of Neglect

Consider the possibility of neglect when…

The child:

  • Is frequently absent from child care or school
  • Begs or steals food or money
  • Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations or glasses
  • Is consistently dirty or has severe body odor
  • Is inappropriately dressed for the weather
  • Abuses alcohol or other drugs
  • Says there is no one at home to provide care
  • Is extremely hungry or says there is no food at home

The parent or adult caregiver:

  • Appears to be unmotivated to meet the child’s basic needs
  • Seems uninterested in the child or depressed
  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner
  • Fails to provide appropriate care even when prompted or encouraged
  • Is abusing alcohol or other drugs

Examples That May Suggest Neglect

Five-year-old “Andrea” tells her child care provider that she is tired that morning because her 6-month-old brother, Max, woke her up. She says, “My mommy wasn’t home yet, so I made Max a bottle and gave it to him. Then he finally went back to sleep.”

“Geraldine,” 4 years old, tells her child care provider that she is very hungry because she didn’t have any breakfast. When asked why she didn’t eat, Geraldine says that her father took her breakfast away from her because she spilled a glass of milk on the floor.

“David,” 4 months old, arrives at his family child care home with a severe diaper rash. The family child care provider lets his mother know about the rash and asks for permission to use some ointment that will heal David’s skin and protect it from further irritation. The mother says, “If you’ve got to put that greasy stuff on, go ahead.” The provider uses the ointment all week and the rash goes away. She gives the mother the tube to take home and use over the weekend. On Monday morning David arrives with the rash again. This pattern is repeated every week over a four-week period.

For More Information

To learn more about preventing, recognizing, and handling child abuse and neglect in child care settings, visit the Child Abuse and Neglect section, or check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles: