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Is neglect considered abuse? Everyone deserves to feel safe in a relationship. But more than that, you should also feel cared for. A complete lack of care and concern by a loved one is otherwise known as neglect.
Abuse is when someone causes repeated harm and distress to a person, often in an attempt to have power and control over them, and neglect can be one of the tactics abusers use to do this.
Let's cover the different kinds of neglect a survivor of abuse might be subjected to by an abuser: medical neglect, child neglect, elderly neglect, different types of neglectful abuse, and what to do if you're experiencing this or suspect someone is being neglected.
Who Can Be Abused By Neglect?
At least one in seven children have experienced child neglect or abuse in the past year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Children living in families with low socioeconomic status are at five times higher risk for child neglect and abuse.
At least one in 10 adults over age 60 living at home are abused, neglected or exploited every year, according to the CDC, but incidence rates are likely much higher, considering elder abuse often goes unreported to adult protective services organizations.
Adults with disabilities are at higher rates of suffering neglect—estimates place their risk four to 10 times higher than non-disabled adults. Children with disabilities are at three times higher risk of abuse and neglect than non-disabled children.
Different Types of Neglect by Abusers
Here are the definitions of some different types of neglect a person of any age may experience at the hands of an abuser.
This is when an abuser denies a person’s basic needs, such as food, clothing or shelter. This can include starvation as an abuse tactic. Physical neglect may also mean a person is not kept safe or, in the case of children, elderly or disabled individuals, left unsupervised or without care or assistance for extended periods of time.
When someone doesn’t receive care or nurturing that they need to feel secure, this can be considered emotional neglect. This is especially harmful in young children who need to feel a bond with their caregiver often and early in life. But in adults, this can also look like the silent treatment, gaslighting, isolation or humiliation.
Most often seen with children, this is when an abuser doesn’t allow a child to go to school or places other barriers in the way of their education. In adult relationships, an abuser may also forbid a partner from completing school. This would fall more into the category of coercive control, a type of abuse where, among other things, the abuser doesn’t want a survivor to have means of self-sufficiency or autonomy.
Denying someone medical care or medication in order to prevent an illness or condition from worsening is medical neglect. This can also include withholding assistance from someone who lives with a disability, like denying the use of a wheelchair, cane, crutches or toileting support. This could also include financial abuse—restricting the use of shared finances in order for a partner to purchase medication or other necessary medical supplies.
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Signs of Neglect
Children, elderly and individuals living with certain disabilities may not be able to communicate that they’re being neglected, so it’s important to know the signs of neglect and abuse.
Signs of neglect may include:
- Being isolated—a survivor’s friends and family are unable to see the person or reach them on the phone
- Poor physical appearance, such as lack of cleanliness, unwashed hair or ragged clothing
- Excessive weight loss
- Poor growth (in children)
- Hoarding or stealing food
- Poor record of work or school attendance
- Missing medical appointments
- Unexplained or untreated injuries, such as bruises, broken bones or burns
- Sudden change in behavior
- Problems concentrating
- Is overly compliant, passive or withdrawn
- Does not want to go home from activities
- Change in financial situation (doesn’t have financial independence any longer)
- A visible lack of care or concern by partner or caregiver when they’re together
What to Do If You’re a Victim of Neglect
If you or someone you know is a victim of neglect, first know that it’s not your fault, no matter what the abuser or caregiver has tried to tell you. Remember that denying your reality is called gaslighting, and it’s abuse. You are not a burden, your symptoms are real and you deserve care. You are being abused if you are being neglected.
First, see if you can reach out to someone you trust—a support person, a medical professional, a social worker or an advocate at your local domestic violence program. Disclose as much as you feel comfortable. Not only can they help validate your feelings, they can likely also help direct you to resources that will assist you in getting further assistance, like safety planning, shelter or legal resources.
If you need emergency shelter and have a disability of any kind, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects you from discrimination when seeking social services such as emergency shelter. Shelters must be accessible to persons with disabilities, so no matter what your abuser has told you, there are services out there to help you.
Next, consider an order of protection against the abuser. This will give you space to come up with next steps while preventing them from trying to convince you to let them back in your life or threatening you to comply with what they want you to do.
If you suspect a child you know is being neglected or abused, you have several options. You can contact Child Protective Services or file for civil protection. Read “How to Help a Child Who’s Being Abused” for more information.
To learn more about how to best support a senior in your life facing neglect, read, “Ask Amanda: My Elderly Mom Is Being Abused.” To learn what to look for when suspecting elder abuse, check out “Five Signs of Elder Abuse.”
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