Social workers have warned that neglected children are being left to languish in damaging situations because they are powerless to intervene.
A prohibitively high threshold for intervention is hampering social workers, as are inadequate resources and support services for needy families, according to Action for Children's first annual report on neglect.
Half of all social workers and more than a third of police officers surveyed feel powerless to intervene even when they suspect children are being left alone, ignored or deprived of food. A staggering 81 per cent of teachers and health workers have suspected neglect in a pupils or patient; about half say the threshold for reporting suspicions should be lower.
Neglect is the most common reason for children being placed under a protection plan by social workers, yet there is no reliable data on its true scale.
A growing body of research indicates that emotional and physical neglect, especially in the early years, has a harmful effect on brain development, the ability to form relationships and educational achievements and increases the risk of behavioural problems.
Experts fear that neglect is repeated in families, generation after generation, because parenting skills are not being learnt. Parents with addictions and serious mental-health problems may also be at risk of neglecting a child if left unsupported.
The report, published in conjunction with the University of Stirling, underlines the pressing need for local and central government to collect more data, which is currently sparse and difficult to compare.
Professor Corinne May-Chahal, co-chair of the College of Social Work, said: "Unlike physical and sexual abuse, where the signs can often be very obvious, identifying neglect is more complex, creating a barrier [to] getting the child and family the help they desperately need.
"The system falls short in providing the safety and security neglected children need. It is important that social workers are given a stronger role in early intervention and that services are appropriately organised to achieve this aim."
Today's research suggests the public and professionals are becoming more alert to neglect, though many are still unsure about how to intervene.
Neglected children will draw heavily upon public resources throughout their lifetimes, making it everyone's business to ensure those identified, are helped quickly, it argues.
In 2010, the Coalition asked Eileen Munro, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, to review child protection after several tragic cases involving child neglect and abuse.
The Children's minister, Tim Loughton, said: "Professor Munro identified that services are often too reactive and we are now helping children's services, police and the NHS to work together and focus on early identification before problems escalate. We're freeing social workers from bureaucracy, reducing statutory guidance, so they have more time and space for proper assessments."
However, the charity is disappointed that the Government rejected the need for new legislation requiring authorities to provide early intervention services for neglected children and their families.
How neglect led to death: Khyra Ishaq
One of the most immediate concerns associated with serious neglect is that other forms of abuse could follow. Seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq, above, from Birmingham, died in May 2008; she had been starved to death by her mother and her mother's boyfriend.
Khyra had been taken out of school six months before she died and was made to stand outside in the garden in the cold. She was also beaten and subjected to other forms of physical torture. But long before things escalated to such a tragic end, members of the public and her school had raised the alarm about her physical condition with social services. The serious case review said several opportunities to intervene and save Khyra's life had been missed.
Even though neglect can go hand in hand with other forms of abuse, it can be hugely damaging in its own right, Action for Children says.
A social worker's view: We need early referrals and the resources
Amy, a children's social worker in London: "Neglect is much more subtle than other types of abuse such as physical or sexual abuse where we can present the court with hard evidence... neglect occurs over a period of time and the effects are cumulative, so the longer we leave a child in that situation, the worse the impact on their future.
"We need people to make referrals early on so we can deal with things quickly; if we have four or five referrals about the same child, that will help us build up a picture. We must also have the resources for early intervention services such as Sure Start and parenting support groups that kick in at the point we have identified a need, so that families can try to turn things around.
"We do not want to get to the point when we have to go court because things are so bad, we want to support children and their families beforehand. But sometimes it can feel like you're waiting for things to get worse."
Interviews with a mother and soon provided by Action for Children:
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