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What is the Difference Between Neglect and Abuse?

By Lori Smith
Updated May 16, 2024
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Any time an individual is dependent on another because of incapacity or age, the potential for neglect and abuse exists. When someone is neglected, it means that his or her basic needs are purposely and deliberately not being met. Usually, the inattentive caregiver is a guardian, parent, spouse, or sometimes, a nursing care provider. Abuse usually refers to the act of harming someone with physical violence or mental cruelty, especially when the victim is not in a position to defend himself. For example, a child may suffer from the neglect and abuse of a parent; an overbearing person might harm a spouse; and senior citizens may be mistreated by nursing home staff — or even their own children.

In many ways, neglect and abuse are similar because of the physical and mental anguish the victim endures. Neglect does not usually involve physical violence, but rather the absence of treatment, care, and the provision of basic needs. Medical attention, shelter, clothing and food are often withheld from a person who is a victim of neglect. The failure to provide these necessities to a dependent person can be considered abuse in many jurisdictions.

Under most normal circumstances, parents go to great lengths to care for their children. When children are hungry or sick, most people will sacrifice their own desires to ensure that the needs of their loved ones are met. They provide a nurturing, loving environment for their family regardless of their financial resources.

Children who are victims of neglect and abuse, however, may be beaten, uncared for, or left alone for several days at a time. They are often deprived of basic needs, supervision, and compassion. Since children are unable to fend for themselves, many of them suffer from serious illnesses, frequent injury, emotional problems and malnourishment. In many cases, they are simply not able to thrive. Some die as a result of neglect and abuse.

Victimization occurs in older individuals, too. Elderly and frail people are frequently the target of maltreatment because they are often too weak, or too scared, to defend themselves. For the same reason, abusive caregivers may oppress people with severe physical or mental disabilities. Sometimes, spouses are violent and cruel, especially when one is mean-spirited and dominant over the other. Regardless of the relationship between the victim and the aggressor, neglect and abuse occurs when someone in a position of power purposely causes physical or mental harm to another.

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