All children deserve to feel loved, cared for and protected by their parents and carers, and have basic rights and needs. These include having enough to eat and drink, clean clothing, a warm, secure home to live in where they feel safe with their family, and access to proper education and healthcare. If these needs are not met by their parents and/or carers, children may experience physical and/or emotional neglect.

What is neglect?

Within Child Protection, neglect is defined as ‘the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development.’ Neglect can be difficult to identify, and noticing that one or more of a child’s needs are not being met on a one-off basis doesn’t necessarily mean that a child is being neglected. However, if there are ongoing signs that these basic needs are not met most or all of the time, then a child could come to significant harm.

The impact of neglect on children

When a child’s needs are not met over a longer period of time, for example on a daily basis over months, and sometimes years, neglect can become chronic. Children may experience short- and long-term effects on their health, wellbeing and development. For example, their speech may not develop as quickly or their opportunity to learn might be limited. They may exhibit behaviours that are a way of expressing their distress or an attempt to ask for something, for attention, interaction or support. In later life, people who have experienced neglect may experience difficulties with relationships with others and have a higher chance of experiencing poor mental health and wellbeing.

At its most extreme, if a child’s basic physical and emotional needs are not met and environments are unsafe, neglect can cause extreme harm or risk to life.

Accessing support

Raising a child is not easy, and at times, parents and carers may face challenges beyond their control that mean they need additional support. Getting it Right for Every Child, the national approach to improving the wellbeing of children and young people in Scotland, highlights how essential it is to support families by making sure that infants, children and young people receive ‘the right help, at the right time, from the right people’.

Universal public services including health, early years, education and others have a unique role to play in working together with children, young people and families to identify at an early stage if potential help might be needed, and provide or signpost to help and support.

Sometimes, if a situation is more complex or hasn’t progressed as much as expected, the situation may need more help and support than these universal services alone, and a multi-agency response may be better suited. Teachers, social workers, support workers, health visitors and others who already know the child, young person and family will meet with them to listen to their views and to plan support and assistance with the aim of improving their situation.

If there are significant concerns that the child or young person is at risk of harm this meeting is known as a Child Protection Conference and local authority social workers have a legal duty to investigate the situation to determine what future action should be taken to keep the child safe.

Key resources

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National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland 2023

Year: 2023 | Topic: Active implementation | Author: The Scottish Government
The Scottish Government has updated National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland which was published in 2021.
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Review of Child Neglect in Scotland

Year: 2013 | Topic: Neglect | Author: Brigid Daniel, Cheryl Burgess, Jane Scott
This Scottish review builds on a series of UK wide reviews of child neglect undertaken by Action for Children in partnership with the Univers…
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Preventing child neglect in the UK – what makes services accessible to children and families?

Year: 2014 | Topic: Neglect | Author: Brigid Daniel, Cheryl Burgess, Jane Scott, Hannah Dobbin, Erica Whitfield, Kate Mulley,
An annual review by Action for Children in partnership with the University of Stirling.
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Oral and Dental Aspects of Child Abuse and Neglect

Year: 2014 | Topic: Child protection, Neglect | Author: Christine Park
Information on the role of Dentists in the recognition of neglect.