Main Page
This Issue
Next Article
Previous Article

2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 2, No. 1
Winter 1997

Neglect and Cultural Sensitivity

Figuring out child neglect is a multifaceted challenge. This challenge becomes even more complex when the cultural backgrounds of the family and the social worker are thrown into the mix.

Social workers working with a family of a different cultural background may be faced with family structures, sex roles, extended family situations, or discipline issues unfamiliar to them. In addition, workers may also be forced to address language barriers, culturally different communication styles, and social, economic, and political factors that affect child rearing (Lum, 1996).

In this article we want to call your attention to the importance of culture in intervening in neglect situations and provide you with a few ideas for developing interventions that recognize cultural differences. By way of illustration, we will describe some common traits shared by families from four minority groups. We will also discuss a study that discovered differences in the way social workers and mothers of various ethnic groups perceive neglect.

Accounting for Differences

How can workers account for cultural differences while they are investigating and providing ongoing services? One of the first steps is to better understand one's own cultural heritage. This includes a self-examination of racial and cultural attitudes and values (Davis & Proctor, 1989). Often personal biases run deep—stereotypic beliefs are subtle forces on our thinking. Many of the western values on which practice theories are based may conflict with the values of minority group clients. Workers can better relate to families if they are aware of their own racial or cultural stereotypes (Davis & Proctor, 1989).

Social workers should also look for opportunities to learn about other cultures, either formally or informally. Colleagues and coworkers of a different culture can be an excellent source of information. Other methods of learning about other cultures include taking language classes, attending festivals and workshops, traveling, reading literature or cultural guides, or community involvement. It may also be helpful, though not always feasible, simply to ask clients specific questions about their culture in a nonthreatening, honest manner.

Workers should be careful to keep an open mind when learning about other cultures, however. It is important to remember that while you may learn about the cultural ways of certain groups, because of the uniqueness of individuals and the diversity found within cultures, ascribing certain characteristics to specific groups may only create more stereotypes. There may, however, be trends or cultural traits common to some—but not all—families of similar cultural backgrounds.

Look at Four Groups

Cynthia Crosson Tower (1996) examined roles and patterns often found in African American, Latin American, Native American, and Asian and Pacific Island families. She stressed that how a particular family functions may depend on the culture in which the family originated, the subgroup of that culture (e.g., India, Chad, etc.), the individual characteristics of family members, and the family's method of adapting to stress.

In her work, Tower points out several values that typify families from these cultures: strong kinship bonds, the important role of religion (although specific religions vary greatly), and expectations that may be unfamiliar to Anglo American_centered workers. Along with individual differences, American Indian cultures may vary from tribe to tribe, as well as from region to region. All groups may be influenced by different levels of acculturation.

Kinship bonds in African American and American Indian families, for example, may mean that families rely heavily on extended family members and friends for such things as child care, financial assistance, advice, and emotional support (Dykeman, Nelson, & Appleton, 1996; Lum, 1992; Tower, 1996). It is not unusual for aunts, grandparents, friends, or even siblings to be the primary care providers for children. It is also common for all members of an African American family, including children, to be expected to work. While social workers may see this as neglect, families may view it as the role of the child within the family structure (Tower, 1996).

Latin American and Asian/Pacific Island families also rely strongly on the extended family. Tower points out that Asian/Pacific Island and American Indian families may rely on a strict family hierarchy to make decisions. Decisions within Latin American families may greatly involve the male because of the strong belief that the family must respect his sense of pride and responsibility to his family. Shame is often used in Asian families as a tool for disciplining children, and should not be misconstrued by non-Asian social workers as emotional abuse (Tower, 1996).

In Latin American cultures, extended families may include relatives, friends, godparents, and those who share a living space. Like African American, Asian/Pacifier Islander, and American Indian families, the welfare of the group outweighs the welfare of the individual for Latin Americans. Social workers should consider the issues of extended family members not only when placing children, but whenever they are working with families. Likewise, it is important to consider the role that work, pride, and shame play in families.

Religion is important to members of the four cultures we are discussing. Catholicism, the predominant religion for Latin Americans, is an important source of support and comfort. The religions of Asian/Pacific Islanders greatly vary, but there can be a common belief in fatalism. American Indians may rely heavily on and have great respect for grandparents. In fact, grandparents often hold the final authority in child-rearing decisions (Tower, 1996). Children are taught to control their emotions, and noninterference is important to the Native American culture. Native Americans have strong respect for nature and believe they must live in harmony with it (Lum, 1992; Tower, 1996).

Perspectives on Neglect

When encountering families of different cultures, social workers should consider their perceptions of neglect. Rose and Meezan (1996) conducted a study that explored the differences in perceptions of neglect held by Caucasian, African American, and Latino mothers. She also compared the perceptions of these women to those of investigation and service caseworkers. All those involved had a middle-class life-style, so the responses reflect community perceptions, not individual perceptions.

Study participants responded to a questionnaire that listed nine dimensions of neglect. These dimensions included inadequate food, clothing, medical care, shelter, supervision, emotional care, and education; unwholesome circumstances; and exploitation. Responses related specifically to the care of a six-year-old child.

Rose and Meezan found that mothers from different cultures perceived neglect differently. In general, they found that Caucasian mothers tend to rate certain items related to child neglect as less serious than African American or Latino mothers. For example, African American and Latino mothers felt that raising a child in unwholesome circumstances was a very serious threat to the child's well-being, while Caucasian mothers rated this threat as less serious. This study seems to confirm that "minority group mothers, contrary to popular belief, continue to hold members of their communities to somewhat more stringent child-rearing standards than mothers in the dominant Caucasian culture" (p. 157).

The study also found differences in the way child welfare workers and mothers perceived neglect. Mothers from the three groups rated all dimensions of neglect as potentially more serious to a six-year-old's well-being than did the child welfare workers. However, both groups agreed in the way in which they ranked each dimension from most serious to least serious. Both mothers and child welfare workers considered exploitation and inadequate supervision as the most serious, and inadequate clothing and shelter as the least serious dimensions.

Factoring cultural differences into your work with neglectful families may seem overwhelming, but these differences really do affect child-rearing practices. For professionals highly committed to improving the well-being of children and their families, developing culturally sensitive interventions for neglectful families is not only a necessary skill but an ethical responsibility.

To learn more about what you can do to understand how culture affects your work with families, see "Culture and Your Practice."


Davis, L. E. & Proctor, E. K. (1989). Race, gender, & class. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Dykeman, C., Nelson, J. R., & Appleton, V. (1996). Building strong working alliances with American Indian families. In P. L. Ewalt, E. M. Freeman, S. A. Kirk, & D. L., Poole (Eds.) Multicultural Issues in Social Work (pp. 336-349). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Lum, D. (1992). Social work practice & people of color. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Rose, S. & Meezan, W. (1996). Variations in perceptions of child neglect. Child Welfare, 75(2), 139-160.

Tower, C. (1996). Child abuse and neglect. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

1997 Jordan Institute for Families