What Is Considered Neglect Of A Child?

There are two ways to define the term “neglect.” The first is by the case law. If a case is decided at either the Utah Court of Appeals or Utah Supreme Court, then they can decide what it means. The second way is by the statutes. I’ll start with the definition set forth in the Utah statute, which is Utah court annotated section 78A-6-105:

“’Neglect’ means action or inaction causing: (i) abandonment of a child…(ii) lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent, guardian, or custodian; (iii) failure or refusal of a parent, guardian, or custodian to provide proper or necessary subsistence, education, or medical care, or any other care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being; (iv) a child to be at risk of being neglected or abused because another child in the same home is neglected or abused…”

That last section defines what we refer to as “a sibling at risk.” There is also a definition in the statute for what it means to be a neglected child, but it’s essentially the same.

Let’s start with what it means to abandon a child. There are statutory definitions for abandonment. For example, under Utah court annotated 78A-6-508, an initial case of abandonment can be made if a parent has surrendered custody of a child to someone else and has not manifested intent to resume physical care of the child for a period of six months. This means that if a parent simply gives a child away to their parents for a period of six months and doesn’t make any plans to resume custody, they have abandoned that child. In addition, if a parent has failed to communicate with a child by mail, telephone or otherwise for six months, or if a parent has failed to show the normal interest of a natural parent without just cause, then they have abandoned that child.

Despite these definitions, arguments can be made that a child has been abandoned even if the time for lack of contact has been shorter than six months. For example, there are cases that define abandonment as conduct on the part of a parent that shows a conscious disregard for their obligations to the child, leading to the destruction of the parent–child relationship. This translates to having a “deadbeat” parent who maintains only occasional contact with a child, such as a text message or a quick call once every few months. Or, it could mean having a parent who only intermittently and briefly visits a child. If there is a protective order against a parent, and if they are not doing everything possible to resolve that protective order in a way that would allow them to have contact with the child, that can constitute abandonment. If a parent is in prison or jail, then the incarceration itself can constitute abandonment. This definition is because if you are incarcerated for a long period of time, you are obviously not exercising your role as a parent. It also indicates that you have chosen to engage in behavior likely to result in an inability to have contact with your child.

Abandonment that is defined by the statute as “a lack of proper parental care by reason of the faults or habits of parents, guardian or custodian” often takes the form of substance abuse and continued criminal activity. Even if you are not in jail for long periods of time but are frequently in and out of jail, or are otherwise engaging in behaviors that are likely to prevent you from exercising your normal duties as a parent, then that would constitute neglect. Mental health issues often play into this. The most common way that I see this standard of abandonment applied is through mental health issues, substance abuse issues, or criminal activity. However, there can also be educational neglect or medical neglect.

Educational neglect often takes the form of excessive absences from school. Alternatively, it could be when a parent “homeschools” a child in a manner that does not actually fulfill the state’s requirements for the child’s education. If a parent changes the child’s schools frequently, then that can also be considered educational neglect. There was one case in the state of Utah in which a parent had changed the child’s school three times in a single year, and that was considered educational neglect. If a child is behind in school because they have been frequently absent, and the parent does not have them participating in educational programs to improve their educational deficiency, then that can constitute educational neglect.

Medical neglect can be both physical and psychological in nature. An example of medical neglect that is physical in nature is refusing to take a child to the hospital when they have broken their leg. An example of medical neglect that is psychological in nature is failing to seek the necessary psychological treatment for a child who is suicidal.

Neglect can also occur when a parent knows that a child is suffering at the hands of someone else but fails to do anything about it. In the literature and in the cases, this type of parent is sometimes referred to as a “hear no evil, see no evil” parent. Other times, they are referred to as the “non-offending” parent. However, there is case law in the state of Utah that indicates that the term “non-offending” is a misnomer, because the parent has knowledge that their child is being abused or neglected by someone else and is failing to protect them. The most typical example of neglect by the “non-offending” parent is when a child is being abused, neglected, or mistreated by a spouse or significant other, and they fail to address the issue because they value that other relationship more than their child’s safety. There are other circumstances that can also result in neglect by a “non-offending” parent.

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*Child Welfare Law Specialist Nat’l Assoc. of Counsel for Children