Brief - Child Welfare / Child Neglect

Highlights of a paper by Public Consulting Group and the Institute for Child Success. Click here for the white paper.



When Brain Science Meets Public Policy: Rethinking Young Child “Neglect” from a Science-Informed Two-Generation Perspective



Adopting neuroscience-based public policies to combat child neglect can increase wellbeing, boost opportunity, and reduce strain on government services.


Definition of Child Neglect

The report defines child neglect as the failure to meet a child’s basic needs for food, shelter, supervision, or nurturing care.



Neuroscience shows us that by redressing child neglect, child welfare agencies can not only reduce human suffering, but equip generations of children to become productive members of society. State policymakers can now build on scientific facts to raise the odds of success for youth born into challenging circumstances, break the inter-generational cycle of child neglect, and ease the burden on our systems of child welfare, education, and criminal justice.


Key Findings 

Neglect is The Most Commonly Reported Form of Child Maltreatment. While instances of physical or sexual child abuse generally receive the most public attention, our child welfare agencies serve far more children who have experienced neglect. Some research suggests that chronic neglect can have a more significant impact on a child’s brain development than physical abuse.


Factors Influencing Child Neglect. Poverty, and the stress that scarcity of resources causes, can impact a parent’s ability to respond to the needs of his or her children. Other life circumstances, including a parent’s own experience of childhood trauma, can also significantly impact the ability to provide a nurturing environment where a child can thrive.  When child welfare agencies determine that a child is suffering from neglect, we must have policies and services that address the needs of both the child and the parents. 


Solutions. Child welfare agencies can work to address the risks and impact of neglect on child development with the following strategies:

  • Invest in a multi-disciplinary, cross-sector service system designed to better protect children, assure age-appropriate development, and strengthen families as primary caregivers.
  • Assess the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s), poverty-related toxic stress, and depression on children, their caregivers, and child welfare case workers.
  • Prioritize the needs of very young children (toddlers and infants) at risk of child neglect: Require early identification of developmental delays in neglected children and timely action, to mitigate neglect’s impact, such as supports, to ensure a nurturing caregiver.
  • Train child welfare staff on the warning signs of child neglect, its potential neurological impact, and best practices to mitigate impact.


Nature and Scale of Child Neglect

  • Young children and those with developmental delays experience the greatest developmental impact from neglect, which can have exponential ramifications over a lifetime.
  • In 2013, child welfare agencies managed cases of substantiated neglect for about 319,000 young children between birth and age six. Nearly 100,000 were infants. 1


How Child Welfare Policies Lag the Science of Neglect. 2

- State Policies for Young Children

  • Less than a quarter of state child welfare agencies require developmental screening and monitoring, behavioral, and mental health assessments for maltreated infants and toddlers, or even physical health or dental screenings. 
  • Only nine states require child welfare agencies to refer maltreated infants and toddlers to developmental specialists within one week. 
  • Scarcely over half (56%) of reporting states provide a specific referral timeframe once a concern is identified. Referral timeframes in requiring states range from two days to two months.
  • Under a third (30%) of reporting states require developmental and monitoring screening for all maltreated infants and toddlers on the child welfare caseload.
  • The majority of state child welfare departments do not require health, mental health, and/or substance-abuse support services to parents of maltreated infants and toddlers on the child welfare case load.

- State Policies for Young Children in Foster Care

  • Only four state welfare systems require training on developmentally-appropriate case work, more frequent court reviews, or increased case worker visits for infants in foster care.  
  • Two thirds (67%) of reporting child welfare agencies, don’t expedite key measures for very young children in foster care, including case reviews, permanency and other court hearings, or family group-decision making meetings.
  • Of the 40 states that specify the frequency of visitation between birth parents and their children in foster care, scarcely more than one fifth (22%) require more frequent visitation for infants and toddlers.


1 “Child Maltreatment 2013,” Children’s Bureau, Administrations for Children and Families, 2015.

2 “Zero to Three,” revised, 2014. National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families.


Full Report

When Brain Science Meets Public Policy: Rethinking Young Child “Neglect” from a Science-Informed Two-Generation Perspective