Child Neglect and Poverty

Are the Parameters of Child Neglect Stacked Against the Impoverished?

As we explore this delicate topic, let’s look at what qualifies as child “general neglect” in California. Said simply, it is when a parent or child caretaker willfully fails to provide a necessity – such as food, medicine, clothing, and shelter – for a child and has no legal excuse for doing so.

While that definition appears to be cut and dry, there’s definitely a murky, convoluted line dividing poverty and child neglect. It seems that those who are impoverished feel the brunt of child protection agencies. These individuals are disproportionately targeted for neglect while having to navigate through an array of systemic disadvantages.

But in California, according to how child neglect is defined, someone can’t be legitimately accused of child neglect just because they are poor.

Child Protective Agencies Unfairly Target Impoverished Communities

Impoverished black communities were the subject of a study that discussed whether and how parents of children in these areas were more commonly to subject the whims of child welfare services based on allegations of severe and general neglect. (Melissa Johnson-Reid, Brett Drake and Pan Zhou, “Neglect Subtypes, Race, and Poverty: Individual, Family, and Service Characteristics,” Child Maltreatment, 2013 18:30.)

The study discusses that, in part, the intense scrutiny on parents in these communities is due to the fact that the classification of neglect is not concrete. There are distinct challenges and dilemmas involved in the responsive decision-making by child abuse mandated reporters and investigators as they relate to different types of neglect.

Furthermore, statistics from the National Bureau of Economic Research show that when states cut their welfare benefit levels, they see a rise in neglect cases. This further demonstrates the involvement of child welfare services agencies in more impoverished communities and child maltreatment accusations among those same communities.

When people have the means to provide the necessities to their children, they tend to succeed on average.

When a person’s welfare funds are cut, it becomes far less realistic for that person to maintain higher living standards. It’s all too often that parents stricken by these circumstances are suddenly subjected to neglect allegations. The consequences of this can be devastating and unjust, given the prospect of parents having their child or children taken away.

On top of that, there’s the chance to end up on the Child Abuse Central Index, which can have negative ramifications that last a lifetime.

The Letter of the Law

Having already given you a simple definition of neglect in the introduction, let’s first consider some of the wording used.

The law explicitly states that a neglect accusation only holds if a parent willfully fails to provide food, medicine, clothing, and shelter. Plus, he or she must be void of any legal excuse.

The fact that a child may exhibit poor health and nutrition symptoms that are commonly associated with neglect, this fact doesn’t say anything about the cause of the symptoms nor, if causation is proven, a parent’s willfulness in brining about such symptoms.

As demonstrated by the studies cited above, barriers are facing impoverished communities preventing parents from providing necessities. Meaning, if poverty alone is the root cause of a child’s basic needs not being met, that doesn’t suggest it’s due to a parent’s willful omission of care.

This notion especially holds weight since neglect cases rise when welfare funding is cut. It suggests something outside of a parent’s control is contributing to children’s situations which give rise to neglect accusations.

Medical Neglect

In the research found in “Neglect Subtypes, Race, and Poverty: Individual, Family, and Service Characteristics,” the classification of medical neglect was discussed.

This is further evidence that the cards are stacked against low-income families, since basic health care is beyond their grasp , in no small part due to the absence of health insurance. Even families that are struggling financially but have insurance still have unmet needs because of limited access.

A family that’s unable to afford standard health care isn’t typically willfully denying a child medical treatment.

The Cruel Relationship Between Poverty and Neglect

Poverty and neglect are two different phenomena, yet they’re inextricably connected, unfair as it may be.

There are too many stories where poverty alone has led to innocent parents’ having their children taken away. This outcome is decidedly bereft of justice, empathy, and consideration for the living conditions and the barriers facing many Californians.