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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 2, No. 1
Winter 1997

Drawing a Portrait of Chronic Neglect

As she always did, Christine went over what she had learned during this initial visit. There had been clear signs of neglect in this family, and definite areas where she was sure she could help the family improve--if they were motivated to change.

Christine recalled some of the other neglecting families with which she had worked. Sometimes she was able to help them address the conditions that lead to the neglect in a short period of time. Then there were the other families, the ones she and her agency had been working with for years now. She wondered, "Are these two types of families fundamentally different?"

In 1993 Kristine Nelson, Edward Saunders, and Miriam Landsman attempted to determine whether chronically neglecting families differ from those involved in shorter-term neglect. In their study, Nelson and her colleagues examined three types of families who had been referred to a metropolitan county child protection agency because of child neglect. Family types included those referred for neglect which had been known to the agency less than three years, those referred for neglect which had been involved with the agency for more than three years, and those referred for neglect that was not substantiated.

Clear Differences

Nelson and her colleagues found the families in their study differed significantly in the areas of demographic information, financial and housing status, psychological distress, and the quality of family relationships.

In general, chronically neglectful families had far fewer resources. When it came to demographics, they tended to have larger families--more children--and their children tended to be older. Chronically neglectful mothers had less education and employment experience, and they were more likely to suffer from poverty.

When they compared information, the authors discovered that referrals on newly neglectful families centered on their inability to manage a recent crisis effectively. Social workers identified many more serious problems for chronically neglectful families in their referrals, particularly as they related to family and environmental problems (e.g., parent-child conflict, inadequate housing).

In terms of financial and housing status, all families in this study were found to be considerably poorer than the average families in their neighborhoods. In addition, newly neglectful families were more likely to report problems with drugs and feelings of social isolation.

When it came to psychological distress, mothers of chronically neglectful families reported more physical health problems than newly neglectful or nonneglectful families. These mothers had a history of chronic mental illness and depression. On the other hand, mothers in the newly neglectful group reported more confused thinking, loneliness, and feelings of dread than mothers from the other groups.

The final area of comparison was on the interactions both inside and outside the family. The authors found that chronically neglectful mothers had more inappropriate expectations of their children and lacked knowledge about parenting and child development.


The difficulty in intervening effectively in chronic neglect cases is that, in many instances, causes have more to do with environmental factors outside of the social worker's and family's control. Nonetheless, there are steps you can take to address the factors contributing to the neglect. The following are based on suggestions found in Kristine Nelson and Miriam Landsman's "Child Neglect" (1995).

  • In addition to family therapy, day care, household management, family planning, and parenting skills training, the family may be greatly helped by referrals for job training or education.

  • Foster a sense of partnership and respect between yourself and the family. Show faith in their ability to make choices by involving them in decisions.

  • Emphasize the family's existing strengths.

  • Provide intensive contact and outreach in the first months; follow this with less intensive contact.

  • Serve these families in their own homes in order to influence their surrounding environment.


Nelson, K., & Landsman, M. J. (1995). Child neglect. In B. K. Williams (Ed.) Family-Centered Services: A Handbook for Practitioners (pp. 184-200). Iowa City: National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice.

Nelson, K., Saunders, E., & Landsman, M. (1993). Chronic child neglect in perspective. Social Work, 38(6), 661-671.

1997 Jordan Institute for Families