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Children caring for themselves and child neglect: when do they overlap?

For some families leaving a child alone is a necessity because of lack of other options. For others it is a symptom of parental neglect. Understanding the differences between these situations is a challenge for child protective services agencies. This is the report of a study to examine how local child welfare agencies respond when they receive reports of children who are taking care of themselves.

The study comprised a literature review, interviews and focus groups with child protective services staff in three local Washington DC social services agencies. The findings are discussed under the following headings: definitions and prevalence; importance to local child protection agencies; why do families leave children unattended or inadequately supervised?; who reports cases involving self-care and inadequate supervision?; what protocols guide case worker decisions?; what are casework practices; findings and implications.

The paper concludes that differing guidelines and policies mean that families investigated for child neglect in one jurisdiction might not be referred for investigation in another. Agencies also take different approaches in responding to families that have been reported for inadequate supervision.

Erica H. Zielewski
Karin Malm
Rob Geen
Urban Institute