Understanding child neglect

CFCA Paper No. 20 – April 2014

How common is neglect?

Those factors that result in child maltreatment being hidden in the community - for example, a lack of an operational definition that is universally accepted and the close association to poverty- also contribute to difficulty in measuring its presence (Scott & Higgins, 2011).2

There is little information available on the incidence or prevalence3 of neglect in the general population, particularly in low-income countries, but even in more developed economies information is limited (Stoltenborgh et al., 2013).

Documented incidence and prevalence rates of neglect are influenced by how the information is collected and from whom the information is collected. For example, surveys may describe neglect differently (e.g., "Did you ever feel neglected by your mother?" vs "Did you ever go without food or shelter as a child?"), or ask different groups of people about having been neglected (e.g., students vs psychiatric patients vs prisoner populations). Some incidence or prevalence rates are based on child protection data. In addition to these variations, different studies may use different definitions of neglect. Incidence rates may also be affected by whether the information gathered is self-reported or based on information provided from another informant. Self-reported studies typically find higher rates of neglect than those that are informant based, perhaps due to informants only identifying most serious cases (Stoltenborgh et al., 2013).


A recent meta-analysis of studies investigating incidence and prevalence of neglect found that, on a global level, self-reported physical neglect was as high as 15% (n = 60,000) (Stoltenborgh et al., 2013). When the authors looked at specific types of neglect within those studies, they found 16.3% of participants reported physical neglect and 18.4% reported emotional neglect. However, it is important to note that the data come from studies with a wide range of sample types, and are not representative population studies.

Other studies conducted in the US and the UK found the incidence of neglect ranges between 1.4% and 10.1% of the population (Gilbert et al., 2009).

The authors of both these large meta-analyses commented on how little research was conducted to investigate the size of the population affected by neglect, despite neglect being the most common type of harm reported to and substantiated by statutory child protection authorities (Gilbert et al., 2009; Stoltenborgh et al., 2013).


There are no national population-based studies of the prevalence or incidence of neglect in Australia. Three studies have been conducted at the state level, using different definitions of neglect, which may explain the broad difference in rates of neglect that were measured. The three studies found neglect to range from 1.6% in a sample from the New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory electoral roles (Rosenman & Rodgers, 2004), through 2.7% in a longitudinal study of young adults in Victoria (Price-Robertson, Smart, & Bromfield, 2010), to 12.2% in a South Australian sample of university students (Straus and Savage, 2005).4

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) compiles state child protection data each year. In the 2011-12 financial year there were 10,936 Australian children with substantiated reports of harm or risk of harm due to child neglect (AIHW, 2013). Neglect was the second most commonly substantiated form of maltreatment nationally (31% of all harm types, after emotional abuse at 36%). When the figures were considered at the state level, neglect was the most commonly substantiated form of maltreatment for New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, and Northern Territory (AIHW, 2013).

There are significant differences in the number of cases that are reported and subsequently substantiated. It does not necessarily follow that the unsubstantiated notifications are wrong - it does demonstrate, however, a general level of concern for children in the Australian community. Many of these children would be living in conditions that are "good enough" parenting situations that do not meet the threshold for formal child protection interventions. That is not to say that those children and their families wouldn't (or didn't) benefit from some assistance, were it available or offered (see Scott, 2013).

While child protection data are useful to help understand the burden faced by child protection agencies, using these data to define the size of the problem in the general population can be problematic for a number of reasons. These include issues around system capacity - the data can only reflect those children the child protection system was made aware of, and where the harm, or risk of harm, was investigated and substantiated. This may result in an undercount if a child was not notified to authorities or an over estimate if the data includes children who are at risk of, but have not actually suffered neglect. Additionally, although children are often exposed to more than one type of maltreatment (Higgins & McCabe, 2001), data systems may not have the capacity to identify all forms and so only one form will appear in the data, resulting in an underestimation of some harm types when experienced as multi-type maltreatment.


2 Poverty itself is measured using a number of different constructs and measures.

3 Prevalence refers to the number of people in a population who have experienced a condition or phenomenon (e.g., the number of Australian children under 5 years who have ever been neglected). Incidence refers to the number of new cases of a condition or phenomenon that occur over a specific time period (e.g., the number of Australian 5-year-olds who were reported as neglected in the 2011-12 financial year).

4 For further information on the prevalence of neglect compared to other forms of maltreatment in Australia, see The Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect.