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Research points to transmission of neglectful child abuse through generations

May 31, 2016

The Chronicle of Social Change:

The latest white paper published by Upbring examines the “Intergenerational Transmission of Child Neglect” as a specific type of abuse within families.

Neglect is the most common form of child abuse, and until recently has not been closely studied independently of other forms of abuse such as physical and emotional abuse. In this paper, author Dee Wilson, M.S.W, considers the ways in which neglect has a lifelong physical and mental health impact on victims, and how it is “toxic” to childhood development and is more strongly linked to poverty than other kinds of abuse.

Wilson pulls together research from a new wave of scholarship over the last 10-15 years about how neglect can span multiple generations, and stem from other forms of abuse. It highlights findings from Carolyn Widom’s longitudinal study of intergenerational neglect, and Bartlett and Easterbrook’s study of infant neglect, as well as their study of adolescent mothers.

The author notes, among many findings synthesized from these studies, that having a history of physical abuse as a child increases the likelihood of substantiated child neglect by a factor of four, and that neglect was more likely to be transmitted to the next generation than physical abuse. Wilson identifies that neglect is “associated with multiple adversities, including poverty, co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders, domestic violence, and parental incarceration.” Therefore conclusions about outcomes related to poor children and neglected children can be difficult to untangle.

This is largely because of the repercussions both have on mental health and interpersonal relationships, which can perpetuate neglectful parenting for many reasons discussed in greater depth in the paper. One example is that the long-term impacts of abuse, such as PTSD as well as chronic and severe depression, make it difficult for individuals to maintain childcare.

Wilson proposes “a comprehensive program to derail this dismal cycle of impaired emotional and social development, academic failure and limited economic opportunities.”

That program primarily targets policy, with a focus on developing nurturing relationships within high-risk families; mental health, with screening and support options available for both low-income mothers and children; trauma-informed practices and care, emphasized by schools, child welfare and juvenile justice agencies; and supportive services for youth transitioning out of foster care through age 25.

To read the white paper in its entirety, click here.