The Most Common Form of Child Abuse

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Stephanie Toelle, Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Agent at UF-IFAS Duval County

This post is in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month.

When we think of child abuse, what may come to mind is an image of a child being hit, beaten, or otherwise physically abused, or maybe hiding in a corner or closet in fear of a raging parent. While this is an unfortunate reality for some children, what many do not realize is that a different form of child abuse is much more common–by far. In fact, in 2012, 78% of the children found to be abused by Child Protective Services were victims of child neglect.


What is child neglect? At times, it can be hard to define. Perceptions and legal definitions may vary by state and agency, and neglect may overlap confusingly with poverty. In general, however, neglect takes these forms: physical neglect, emotional neglect, medical neglect, supervisory neglect, and educational neglect. Some states also consider it neglect when a baby is born showing signs of drug addiction or drug exposure.

Types of Neglect

  • Physical neglect occurs when children are not adequately fed or clothed or kept clean, or when a parent refuses to physically shelter or maintain safe custody of a child.
  • Emotional neglect happens when parents fail to nurture, pay attention to, or give affection to children, or openly permit or allow drug and alcohol use or criminal behavior without intervening.
  • Medical neglect is when parents delay or deny necessary health care to a child; however, religious beliefs can complicate this issue.
  • Supervisory neglect occurs when children are left alone, with inappropriate caregivers, or in unsafe or unsanitary surroundings.
  • And in educational neglect, children are permitted to routinely skip school, or parents do not enroll them in school or homeschool them.

Signs of Neglect

While some kinds of neglect may be relatively easy for teachers, relatives, and other concerned people to spot, at other times, neglect will be less obvious. Concerns to watch for include:

  • Child is always or very often in dirty or ragged clothes, or the wrong clothes for the weather
  • Child is consistently hungry, exhausted, or dirty
  • Child chronically misses school or says he or she has to stay home to care for family members
  • Child’s health does not seem to be cared for

The child’s behavior may also be unusual—he or she may be withdrawn and indifferent, or have mood swings or act out. Sometimes the parent behaves oddly in a way that others notice, showing little concern for the child or seeming angry or apathetic.

If You Suspect Neglect

What should you do if you think a child you know is being abused or neglected? One good first step is to call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD). Trained counselors can speak with you about identifying abuse, reporting abuse, and what happens after a report is made.

In Florida, to make an abuse allegation, call the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Central Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96ABUSE, or visit the Florida DCF Abuse Reporting Portal. Information for reporting in other states is available from the Child Welfare Information Gateway. If you feel a child is in immediate danger, call 911.

Help for Parents

If you’re struggling with the demands of parenting, consider calling the National Parenting Helpline at 1-855-4A PARENT (1-855-427-2736). This is a free helpline operated by Parents Anonymous. Parents Anonymous also operates free parenting support groups. You can find info on groups in your area here.

Neglect may not be what first comes to mind when we think of child abuse—but it is the most common form, and tragically, it can be fatal. Poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and many other concerns can all contribute to the problem. As communities, we have a responsibility to reach out to families and children in need of help.

(Photo credit: Little Boy standing by Dick Vos. CC BY 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading:

Child Abuse and Neglect

Child Neglect


Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). What Is Child Abuse and Neglect? Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms. Retrieved from

Mayo Clinic. (2012). Child abuse. Retrieved from

Toelle, A. E., & Fogarty, K. (2013). Save a child: How to identify and report child abuse. Retrieved from

U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2006). Child Neglect: A Guide for Prevention, Assessment, and Intervention. Retrieved from 2 Definition and Scope of Neglect

Medline Plus. (2014). Child neglect and emotional abuse. Retrieved from


Posted: April 15, 2015

Category: , Relationships & Family, Work & Life
Tags: Health And Wellness, Mental Health, Parenting

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe For More Great Content

IFAS Blogs Categories

Skip to toolbar