What Is the Leading Cause of Child Abandonment?

By David B. Ryan
Abandoned teens frequently live on the street or in abandoned houses.
Abandoned teens frequently live on the street or in abandoned houses.

Federal and state laws, including the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act reauthorized in 2010, define child neglect and abuse, and set guidelines for identifying child abandonment. Most state laws classify child abandonment as a type of abuse or neglect, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, and sometimes punish parents for the failure to provide care and support for children. The exact number of children abandoned each year is unknown because of lack of uniform data collection and different state definitions used to classify abandoned children.

Abandonment Classification

The lack of an identified parent or the inability of authorities to find a parent opens the child up to classification as an abandoned youth. Parents who leave a child temporarily without supervision can be charged with child abandonment. Children suffer illness, injury or death when left without supervision, and authorities can charge parents or legal caregivers with neglect or abandonment when this happens. The parent's inability or unwillingness to accept responsibility for the care of the child leads to abandoned children.

Abandonment Types

The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System groups child abandonment with maltreatment and neglect. The caregiver's inability to give children necessary and age-appropriate care, even when the family has the resources and financial income to provide the care, qualifies as neglect under most state laws. The types of child neglect include physical, educational, medical and emotional or psychological. Failure to give children adequate food, shelter and the lack of proper supervision come under the category of physical neglect. Medical abandonment includes the neglect of important medical and mental health treatment. Adults unable or unwilling to see children receive an education can be charged with educational neglect under federal law. Emotional abandonment includes neglect of the child's basic emotional needs, failure to provide psychological services and allowing children to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Abandonment Causes

The causes for child abandonment are complex. Poverty, lack of education, cultural values and low levels of standard care for the community all contribute to abandonment. Mental and physical illness of either the child or parents occasionally lead to abandonment. Adults sometimes lack information or the education to identify medical problems, for example, and cultural differences lead some parents to fail to send children to school. Parents unable to care for themselves because of drug or alcohol abuse frequently also fail to care for children. Each type of child abandonment has specific reasons, but most cases of abandoned children involve the interaction between a number of causes. The common element in abandonment cases is the parent's personality and the lack of sound psychological and parenting development, according to childhood development researchers Jay Belsky and Joan Vondra.

Signs of Abandonment

Teachers and day care workers use common signs of abandonment to identify children in need, but those workers frequently lack access to the parents to determine the causes for abandonment. Typical signals include the failure of children to have appropriate weight gain, frequent school absences, failure to receive medical care and poor hygiene, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. A single sign might not indicate abandonment, but the Child Welfare Information Gateway warns a combination of signs and repeated signals need investigation by the adults in the child's life. Investigation of abandonment charges typically includes home visits and interviews with parents and children to identify the causes for the abandonment, but many states record this information under the general category of child abuse.

About the Author

David B. Ryan has been a professional writer since 1989. His work includes various books, articles for "The Plain Dealer" in Cleveland and essays for Oxford University Press. Ryan holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati and Indiana University and certifications in emergency management and health disaster response.