October 17, 2016 – The Invisibility of Neglect

Teresa HuizarGood morning and happy Monday. I hope this finds everyone well. This morning, I want to direct your attention to a fascinating new study that examines the issue of child neglect in the context of forensic interviews. 

As CACs and MDTs, we are accustomed—and trained—to interview children about instances of sexual abuse, physical abuse and witnessing violent crimes. Those circumstances are typically incident-specific. Neglect, on the other hand, is most often a chronic situation that does not lend itself to a narrative recalling specific instances. Further complicating the issue is the fact that neglect often arises as a series of omissions, rather than commissions—again, making specific identification of discrete instances difficult if not impossible. 

Faced with these issues, the researchers in the current study set out to examine the way that children narrate experiences of neglect in the context of forensic interviews. The study is published in the Children and Youth Services Review and is titled “Neglect voices:  Lessens from forensic investigation following neglect.” [1] It examines “the narrative of neglect as experienced by the neglected children and what lessons can be learned from these narratives, for practitioners and researchers within the field.” Id., p. 171. 

At the outset of the study, the researchers make a clear that they are focused on two specific types of neglect: deprivational neglect, which “entails parental deliberate deprivation of food and care” and selective neglect “which includes allocating resources in a discriminatory way.” Id., p. 172. What they are not focused on is neglect that stems from poverty and is not intentional. Furthermore, the cases they examined involved only allegations of neglect, and not additional kinds of abuse, such as physical or sexual abuse. In all, 15 cases met the criteria. The sample is small, to be sure, but the cases generated five key themes, all of which were consistent through the pool. These themes are as follows:
  • Difficulties identifying neglect,
  • Neglect is revealed as the narrative of family life unfolds,
  • Loyalty to parents,
  • Collective view (siblings and me), and
  • Prominent feelings (hope for the future, fear and sadness). Id., p. 174. 
All of the children in this study struggled to identify neglect, and the researchers note that “[t]he difficulties were embedded in the challenge to retrieve an identified incident from a daily routine.”  Id. Such difficulties “were evident regardless of the children’s ages.  From this fact, we can speculate that this pattern is not related to cognitive maturity or developmental inability to comprehend the purpose of the interview or the questions.” Id. And when the children did elaborate on the neglect they experienced, it was only in the context of a general narrative about family life, rather than a specific narrative about incidents. 

Moreover, “the children dedicated a lot of effort to emphasize the parents’ perspectives in their narratives… each time the children provided information of the alleged incidents, they spontaneously added information about their parents’ difficulties or strong points and efforts.” Id., p. 174. The researchers also noted that the children all expressed fear and sadness, which was likely related to “[k]nowing that there are repercussions to their testimonies….” Id.  And although they also expressed hope for the future, the researchers note that their emotions, and their sense of responsibility for the repercussions of their disclosures, “might explain many difficulties in placements that children are having, both in residential care and in foster care. The voices of these children have to be taken into account both for policy makers and practitioners in planning and revising interventions and prevention efforts in the future.”  Id., p. 175.

And that’s really the heart of the matter here. This study is an extremely small sampling size—only 15 cases—making it difficult to generalize the findings. Nevertheless, it does give us insight into the minds of children who are forensically interviewed regarding neglect, as well as a starting point for future research. I strongly encourage you to share this widely with your colleagues and team members, and to use it as a springboard for conversation about how and why we interview children about neglect. 

As always, I thank you for all your hard work and dedication and for all that you do on behalf of children and families.

Warm regards,  

[1] Full text of this publication may be found in the National Children's Advocacy Center's Child Abuse Library Online (CALiO ™) or by contacting the NCAC Research Digital Information Librarian. CALiO ™ is a service of the National Children's Advocacy Center (NCAC). | 516 C Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002 US

Copyright © 2016 National Children's Alliance, All rights reserved.

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