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Know the Signs: Neglect


Neglect is the failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs. Neglect may be:

  • Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
  • Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)
  • Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
  • Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)
  • Or, more often, a combination of above.

Remember not to confuse poverty with neglect. For example, a family who lacks access to housing, utilities, food, or other necessities may be in need of information or assistance.

Also in Alaska, be aware of community standards. For example, in some communities running water or electricity is an expensive option beyond many people’s means. High cost of housing materials can result in unfinished homes or homes in disrepair. Alaska has a large, diverse population where community standards, customs, and cultural conventions can differ dramatically from one home, town, or village to the next.

Inadequate Supervision

A common and dangerous form of neglect is inadequate supervision. Alaska does not have a law that outlines when it is safe to leave a child unsupervised, however each year a number of Alaskan children die as a result of drownings, fires, firearm incidents, and other incidents related to a failure of caregiver supervision. At the same time, parents and people who care for children should use sound judgement. Depending on their age and their development, a child who is left home alone too long or too often may be in danger, as are children allowed to be unsupervised in the presence of environmental dangers or with potentially risky or unsafe caregivers (leaving a child with a sex offender is a criminal offence). Children who care for younger children too long and too often may be in danger. Circumstances can vary wildly, so a person should use good judgement when reporting. Remember, reporting is not an accusation, but a request to OCS to follow up to find out more.


Abandonment may exist when the parent or guardian fails to make appropriate childcare arrangements with a responsible substitute caregiver during the parent or guardian's extended absence.

Appropriate childcare arrangements satisfy the following criteria:

  • The substitute caregiver is a responsible person.
  • The substitute caregiver knows the parent or guardian’s whereabouts and the anticipated length of the substitute caregiving arrangement.
  • The parent or guardian returns at the designated time — or the substitute caregiver has indicated both willingness and ability to continue caring for the child longer than planned.
  • The parent or guardian and the substitute caregiver make appropriate arrangements for emergency situations.

Abandonment may exist when:

  • The parent or guardian has relinquished caregiving.
  • The parent or guardian has been absent for several days and his or her whereabouts are not known.
  • The substitute caregiver is not being financially supported for the care of the child.

Signs of Neglect in Children

Signs and symptoms of neglect can be hard to detect by professionals and others outside the home. Many parents struggle with caring for their children for many different reasons. For example, poverty, job stress, grief and loss, and mental health are all issues many families struggle with. Struggle and adversity are part of many families' lives. These challenges don’t always result in neglect. Remember that the signs and symptoms of neglect are sometimes signs that a family needs information or assistance.

At the same time, be aware that children who are neglected may:

  • Always be sleepy or tired
  • Appear malnourished or to be losing weight
  • Steal food or money, or beg from classmates
  • Report that no caretaker is at home
  • Have frequent absences from school
  • Show extreme loneliness and need for affection
  • Show an obvious lack of needed medical, dental, or vision care
  • Be physically dirty and have body odor
  • Wear clothing that isn’t appropriate for the weather
  • Use alcohol or drugs.

Signs of Neglect in Parent

When parents neglect children there is often an associated behavior that has gotten out of control. For example, the addictive use of drugs and alcohol, severe and untreated mental health challenges, or an unresolved history of trauma can all interfere with a person’s ability to parent.

Neglectful parents may:

  • Seem depressed or not interested in anything
  • Behave irrationally or strangely
  • Abuse alcohol or drugs
  • Deny that the child has problems, or blame the child for problems at school or home
  • Consistently talk about the child negatively
  • Expect the child to do too much or to be perfect
  • Use the child to fulfill their own emotional needs rather than being attuned to the emotional needs of the child
  • Seem not to care about the child

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