University of Tasmania
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Child neglect in infancy and early childhood : Towards a definition of the problem

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posted on 2023-05-26, 01:39 authored by Fitzpatrick, AM
Child neglect is the most commonly referred and re-referred form of maltreatment reported to child protection services in Australia, with the number of notifications continuing to grow despite the implementation of new legislation, policies and systems for protecting children over the last decade. Infants and toddlers under four years of age are the most vulnerable and most likely to suffer the devastating consequences of neglect. The early years are a critical period in terms of neuronal development in the brain, and the stage-salient processes involved in children's immediate and ongoing psychological and physical development. It is also the period during which they are at increased risk of serious injury and fatality. Yet the unique nature of neglect in this age group continues to be inadequately responded to both in practice and in research. This thesis draws attention to the urgent need for a broad and concise, child-centred and needs-based definition of neglect that focuses specifically on this highly vulnerable age group. Improved understandings of and responses to child neglect have been held back by the lack of agreement about what constitutes neglect, and how best to define and measure it. While some progress has been made towards a conceptual definition of neglect in early childhood, research is needed to advance the development of a definition that is both conceptually sound and operational. The primary and concomitant aims of the research were to gain a better understanding of the nature of neglect in infancy and early childhood and to further the development of a conceptual and operational definition of the problem. The second aim of the project was to establish reliable statistical data relating to the notification rate and the pattern of referral for infants (<48 months) in an Australian context. The research involved two distinct studies ‚Äö- 1) an investigation of notified cases of neglect and abuse relating to children under 48 months of age in two rural and urban regions in Tasmania, and 2) an in-depth exploration of the nature of neglect in a child protection sample of infants (< 48 months) from one group of families in which a subject infant had died, and (19) infants from another group of families in which a subject child had suffered various forms of neglect-related harm. The main contribution of this research has been the development of a system for identifying and measuring the sub-types of neglect that are unique to infancy and early childhood. The classification system provides a unified, child-centred operational definition, with each sub-type founded on empirically based constructs of need. The need constructs served to both identify the particular sub-type of neglect and/or unmet need being notified and provide more useful and appropriate frequency measures, which are aggregated to measure levels of severity and chronicity, and or to assess levels of (accumulated) risk. The research has also helped to clarify the nature of the neglect experience for this age group; particularly in cases in which a death or serious harm has occurred. It has demonstrated the need for broad and concise operational definitions of early childhood neglect which can readily identify the unmet needs of vulnerable children in practice and classify and measure the different sub-types of neglect for research.


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