Abstract: Policy Analysis on the Definition of Child Neglect across States (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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205P Policy Analysis on the Definition of Child Neglect across States

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Chien-jen Chiang, PhD, Assistant Professor, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge, LA
Miyoun Yang, PhD, Betty J.Stewart Associate Professor in Social Work Practice with Children, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge, LA
Background and Purpose.

While child neglect is the most common type of reported maltreatment and comprises up to 80% of all child maltreatment, the definition of child neglect has long been the subject of controversy. The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) is the federal data system that gathers information from official records from all 50 states, but the discrepancies in the percentages of child neglect reports ranged from 0.5% in Vermont to 92.9% in Montana. Researchers argued that imprecise definitions of neglect in administrative data not only create more confusion for practitioners and policymakers but also hamper researchers’ abilities to make inferences about the nature and consequences of neglect. The purpose of this study is to examine the discrepancies by investigating subtypes of neglect, changes in the definition of child neglect across state statues, and whether the prevalence of child neglect can be reflected in the changes of child neglect definitions.


A total of 3 datasets were used in this study. The prevalence of child neglect was drawn from the NCANDS from 2002 to 2016. The Child Welfare Information Gateway and the LexisNexis database were used to examine the state statutes of child neglect definitions through content analysis from 2002 to 2016. All subtypes of neglect were coded with the corresponding state statute.


While most of the states identified physical neglect in their statues, a lot of discrepancies were found in other subtypes of neglect across states. In 2016, a total of 21 states identified emotional neglect, and 26 states specified educational neglect. A total of 14 states included abandonment in the definition of neglect, and 15 states listed it as a separate form of maltreatment. While 38 states identified substance abuse-related neglect, 13 states acknowledged it only if it harms the caregiver’s ability for caregiving. Additionally, 11 states referred to prenatal exposure to substance abuse and the other 14 states recognized it if the caregiver was manufacturing or selling illegal substances in front of children. On the other hand, a review of state statutes over time revealed few changes in definitions of child neglect. Only 3 states added “substance abuse” and 1 state added “educational neglect” to their state statue. The prevalence of child neglect didn’t change significantly in the following 5 years for those states that changed their child neglect definitions.

Conclusions and implications.

Surprisingly, there were only a few changes in child neglect definitions from state statutes over time. While states aggregated their neglect cases to fit into the NCANDS neglect coding system which is either neglect or medical neglect, detailed information regarding how each state maps out their coding is unknown. Moreover, little is known about how child protective agencies interpret, implement, and enforce the law. More studies are needed to examine the data transformation from practice to administrative levels, and therefore more valid datasets could be used for the development of interventions and policies.