December 27, 2010
CHILD neglect can be just as harmful to children's cognitive development as physical and sexual abuse, a new study
But child protection authorities do not treat neglect with the same urgency as other forms of child maltreatment.
The study of almost 4000 children aged 14 revealed that those with a history of reported abuse or neglect scored on
average three IQ points lower than children who had not been maltreated.
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And the children who had been neglected did just as poorly as children with a history of physical or sexual abuse.
Ryan Mills, a paediatrician and co-author of the study, said child protection systems struggled to deal with chronic
cases of neglect. ''But neglect needs to be given equal attention because its long-term effects are at least as severe as
physical or sexual abuse,'' he said.
Dr Mills, who is also a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland, said about 7 per cent of children were reported
for neglect at some time before they reached adulthood, and this probably represented ''the tip of the iceberg''.
The research drew upon data from the Mater-University study of pregnancy - a longitudinal study of more than 7000 mothers
and their children born at Brisbane's Mater Hospital from 1981 to 1983. The study involved confidentially linking allegations
of maltreatment reported to the Department of Families, Youth and Community Care in Queensland with the children in the hospital
At age 14, the adolescents sat tests for numeracy, literacy and abstract reasoning. Dr Mills said a background of child
abuse and neglect was the strongest predictor of how the children fared in the tests, even stronger than more traditional
indicators such as family income.
The study controlled for a big range of socioeconomic and other factors, and the findings were the same whether the
maltreatment had been substantiated after an investigation or simply reported to the department.
An earlier study by Dr Mills of the same group showed that chronic neglect was even more deleterious than sexual abuse
on the psychological health of children. ''The adverse cognitive outcomes indicate children are not getting adequate stimulation
or attention to their developmental needs,'' Dr Mills said.
The study's co-author, Lane Strathearn, a UQ medical and PhD graduate based at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas,
said three-quarters of the children reported for neglect had also been reported for abuse. The children who had experienced
abuse and neglect were doubly affected.
Dr Mills said a difference of three IQ points was significant but probably would not, on its own, make a big difference
to a child's life. However, the loss in educational attainment was a ''waste of human potential''.
study was published online this month in the medical journal Pediatrics.