Old house surrounded by overgrown wildflowers

Neglect, also referred to as neglection, describes mistreatment and relates specifically to a caregiver’s failure to meet the basic needs of the person they provide care for. Though most often associated with children, neglect can also refer to the mistreatment of adults, especially when it comes to elder care.

People who have been through neglect may be more likely to experience attachment issues, feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. Individuals who wish to overcome challenges associated with these issues may find it helpful to speak with a qualified mental health professional.

Understanding Neglect

United States federal and state law requires caregivers to provide a child’s food, shelter, clothing, health care, and supervision to the degree that it keeps them safe. When a caregiver does not meet these needs, they are considered negligent. Some states also include educational neglect, medical neglect, and child abandonment in this category. 

According to the 2015 Child Maltreatment Report conducted by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), Child Protective Services (CPS) received approximately 2.2 million reports of alleged child maltreatment in the United States in 2015. Subsequent investigations by CPS revealed that 683,000 children were confirmed as victims of maltreatment, and of those, 75.3% experienced neglect. Additionally, the vast majority of maltreatment victims were young children, with over a quarter of the victims under the age of 3. 

When it comes to the care and well-being of children, child neglect continues to be an issue. However, children are not the only population at risk for becoming victims of neglect. According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), approximately 1 in 10 adults age 60 and over have experienced some form of abuse or neglect, and in about 60% of those cases, the negligent caregiver was a spouse, adult child, or family member.

What Is the Difference Between Neglect and Abuse?

In many ways, abuse and neglect are similar; both involve the care and treatment of dependent individuals, harmful behaviors from caregivers, and lasting negative effects for their victims. However, there are some distinct differences between the two that impact how each is addressed.   

The Child Protective Services Law (CPSL) defines child abuse as intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing physical, sexual, or emotional harm to a child, either by acting or failing to act. Abuse includes bodily harm, sexual exploitation, or mental injury. Neglect, on the other hand, may not always be intentional. For example, the declining physical health of a caregiver could cause them to unintentionally neglect their children. Or, in the case of elder neglect, an individual’s deteriorating mental state brought on by aging may lead them to neglect self-care without realizing it.

Types of Neglect

Single weathered swing surrounded by old leavesNeglect can be defined further by examining its types and how they can differ based on the age of the victim. Two age groups that may be most at-risk for experiencing neglect are children and the elderly, as people at these ages often require help from others to take care of themselves.

When it comes to child neglect, there are four main types:

  • Physical: Failure to provide necessities like food, shelter, clothing, standard medical care, supervision, and safety.
  • Educational: Failure to ensure school age children are enrolled in school, home schooled, or provided specialized educational training where appropriate.
  • Emotional: Failure to attend to psychological care and emotional needs.
  • Medical: Failure to allow for necessary medical treatment recommended by medical professionals; depending on the state, this may also include mental health treatment. 

The National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA) outlines the following types of adult or elderly neglect:

  • Physical: Failure to meet the medical, hygienic, or dietary needs necessary to an individual’s physical health.
  • Emotional: Failure to accommodate or account for an individual’s emotional well-being by belittling, ignoring, or preventing them from seeing family or friends.
  • Abandonment: Failure to fulfill caregiver duties by forsaking expected responsibilities or failing to arrange for care in the case of caregiver absence.
  • Financial: Failing to fulfill financial obligations, like paying utilities and rent, to ensure the stability and safety of an individual.
  • Self-neglect: Failure of seniors and adults to meet their own physical, psychological, emotional, and financial needs to the point that their safety and well-being are threatened.

It is important to be able to recognize neglect when it occurs, as ignoring it may result in the death of the victim if they never receive proper care. Learn more about how to identify neglect.


  1. Child maltreatment. (2017, October 12). Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/child-maltreatment
  2. Definitions of child abuse and neglect. (2016). Child Welfare Information Gateway. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/define.pdf
  3. Shafer, L. (2016, March 17). Understanding neglect. Retrieved from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/16/03/understanding-neglect
  4. What is elder abuse? (n.d.). National Council on Aging. Retrieved from https://www.ncoa.org/public-policy-action/elder-justice/elder-abuse-facts
  5. What is neglect? (n.d.). National Adult Protective Services Association. Retrieved from http://www.napsa-now.org/get-informed/what-is-neglect