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Passive Acts of Neglect in Children

Disregarding the appropriate care a child requires.

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Carla reached into her pocket for the key. Her younger sister and brother waited expectantly for her to open the door. She instinctively put her finger to her lips and cautioned them to be quiet as they entered the apartment. Her mother, she knew, was working, but she didn’t know about her mother’s boyfriend. Often, he was there, sleeping during the day, which is why they had to be quiet. He became very angry if they were loud coming home from school and woke him up.

But today he wasn’t home, so Carla could relax. Her brother and sister went to put their school things away, while she headed into the kitchen. Depending on when Carla’s mother got home, dinner could be several hours away and her siblings had already complained about being hungry. Carla could tell her mother hadn’t done any shopping. She’d have to figure something out. The refrigerator contained no milk, only a lone squishy apple. The bag of chips she had picked up with hope contained only crumbs. Her mom’s boyfriend had probably eaten all of them before he left. She did, however, find a bag of rice to cook.

Carla washed the dirty saucepan from a few nights before and cooked up rice in water. She peeled and chopped up the best parts of the apple and added them to the rice. A little sugar, plus some cinnamon she borrowed from the nice lady down the hall and, in no time, they all sat down to a hot snack. At least they’d have eaten something if their mother didn’t make it home to cook dinner.

Understanding childhood abuse certainly includes overt forms of harm done to children. But what about passive acts of neglect? What about Carla and her siblings? Did they have a roof over their heads? Yes. Were they clothed? Yes. Was there food in the house? Yes. Were they neglected? Yes. We hear on the news when neglected children are harmed by accident or fire. But what about the harm children experience from neglect itself? Expecting a ten-year-old, such as Carla, to care for a five-year-old and a seven-year-old is abusive. Adults have the obligation to care for children. Children should never be expected to bear that responsibility. The weight of that burden stresses and strains a child emotionally and physically—effects that last into adulthood.

Neglect can be difficult to define because it involves the lack of something. In my experience, though, I’ve listened to adults explaining how, as children, they were left alone for hours at a time, not knowing when a parent or caregiver would return. I’ve heard of children who were locked out of their houses as punishment for minor offenses. Of being passed off from one adult to another, while the parent was absent for days or weeks at a time. I’ve heard of several children, like Carla, who were given the responsibility of caring for younger siblings, terrified that anything that went wrong would be their fault.

I’ve heard stories of not enough to eat, not having the right shoes or clothes to wear. Some women have talked, with shame, about having to fend for themselves as young teens for hygiene products. I’ve heard stories of sheer terror in which children were riding in cars with adults who were drunk or high. I’ve heard stories of children who were not allowed to go to the doctor or who were refused medicine because the expense was too high or the money simply went toward something else. Neglect, I believe, is the lack of appropriate attention and concern. When neglect happens to children, lives—both physical and emotional—are at risk.

What did you lack growing up? Were you even allowed to be a child or were you thrust into handling adult responsibilities and situations far too early? Were the burdens of adulthood shifted from a parent or other adult onto you? These burdens could have been shifted, not out of malice or hostility, but because of a parent’s or caregiver’s physical or mental illness. These adults couldn’t or wouldn’t provide what was needed. Do any of these examples sound like what you dealt with as a child? If so, you grew up settling for less, making do with what little you had, reliant on your creativity, ingenuity, and energy to fend for yourself or take care of others. Aspects of your childhood were stolen from you.

Neglect occurs when an adult disregards the appropriate care a child requires. In some ways, I have come to believe that neglect has the capacity to play an increasing role in the face of childhood abuse. In our fast-paced, do-it-now society, urgency can overtake importance. Adults, pressured from all sides, can make choices that elevate work or other relationships above what is best for children. With so many avenues for adult distraction, I’m fearful that children will continue to be overlooked and, too often, neglected.

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 36 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.

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