The Difference Between Abuse & Neglect

As the FBI and state Department of Justice (DOJ) continue to investigate what appears to be rampant child abuse at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls juvenile correctional facilities in Irma, Wisconsin, I have noted repeated excuses raised by union leaders and some staff for the abuse of these  incarcerated juveniles. These excuses range from blaming Wisconsin’s now infamous Act 10 for breaking children’s wrists, arms and causing serious foot injuries, to suggesting that introduction of methods of highly regarded trauma informed care, are to blame.


Sadly, thus far, the media, union leaders and politicians generally seem more interested in the blame game, rather than examining the real consequences on these troubled youths when they suffer abuse and neglect at the hands of those who have the responsibility to keep them safe. While it is certainly appropriate to determine who is responsible and exact the appropriate punishment, that is exactly why the FBI and DOJ are continuing their investigation. It is certainly my hope and expectation that when their investigation is concluded, the appropriate people will be prosecuted and punished.

However, my experience as an attorney who has litigated abuse and neglect cases against a wide variety of care providers for nearly 30 years, I know that it is important to pay attention to the difference between abuse and neglect. Put simply: abuse is intentional and can never be excused by understaffing or other poor working conditions.While I fully support appropriate staffing levels and well trained and supported staff, the lack of these things can never justify breaking the bones of incarcerated youth.

Neglect, on the other hand, can easily occur when there are staffing shortages or poorly trained staff. If there are not enough staff to check on the physical and emotional health of incarcerated youth, then their health can deteriorate and they may harm each other due to insufficient supervision. Similarly, if staff are poorly trained, they may not have the knowledge of how to de-escalate dangerous situations, which may in turn, result in injuries.

In general, neglect is ultimately the responsibility of those who determine staffing levels and training, i.e., supervisors. On the other hand, as stated previously, responsibility for abuse lies with the abuser. Once the FBI and DOJ have concluded their investigation, prosecutions should take place with the understanding of the difference between abuse and neglect to make sure that those responsible for each category of harm are held accountable.

In addition, what must never be forgotten is that children have been abused and neglected under state supervision. These children must be compensated for the harm that was done to them.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.