Affluent Abuse and Neglect

Marilyn Hawes looks at a form of abuse that has gone under the radar for too long

What is Affluent Abuse?

Years ago, when I was teaching in Independent schools my friends used to say: "lucky you! At least you don’t have any deprivation at your school." I used to say: "sadly I see a lot of emotional deprivation amid professional parents." Back then, there wasn’t a name for it, but now we call it what it is: affluent abuse.

Recently, I contacted a school and sent a document I had researched. On receipt, I was told: "goodness, having read the article, I can point the finger at several cases in our school." I replied, "OK, so what happens next? The pupils you have identified are being abused and that cannot be ignored."

What are the attendant issues for those who wish to raise the flag?

Wealthy families and neglect

Affluent neglect or abuse refers to the neglect experienced by children in wealthy families. Often, neglect in wealthier families can be more difficult to spot, as the type of neglect experienced by children and young people in these circumstances is often emotional. There is a lack of awareness around affluent neglect which presents practitioners with added complexities and there are plenty of wealthy families whose children are not in the independent school sector. This is worth remembering.

What risks are children from wealthy families exposed to?

There are a huge number of risks that face children from all walks of life, and being a child in an affluent family is often perceived to protect those children from some of these dangers. Children from affluent families aren’t as sheltered from neglect as some of us may think.

Why is affluent neglect often overlooked?

There are several barriers that may prevent children from more affluent homes, who are experiencing these types of neglect from accessing the support they need. Firstly, their symptoms of neglect may be harder to spot. The nature of emotional neglect can make it much harder to identify than other types of neglect. For example, due to the family having hired help to care for the children they may present as clean, tidy, well-dressed, and properly fed when they are experiencing emotional neglect. Also, staff training often focuses on case studies looking at children from poor or working-class families, so staff in educational settings may not be adequately trained or experienced to identify and intervene in cases of neglect among their wealthier families.

It is also often the case when working with poorer families that they are already known to social services, so it is easier to know who to look out for.

The same cannot be said for wealthy families, as often they are not ‘on the radar’ of protective services. There may also be increased hostility towards agencies such as social services from more affluent families, making it more difficult to improve outcomes for children in these circumstances.

There is also a case to be made for the role of unconscious bias when working with children from wealthier families. Schools and school staff may miss important pieces of the puzzle when they assume that children from wealthy families are less at risk than those from poorer backgrounds. These children may be coming in with new clothes and fancy designer labels – not signs you would usually associate with a case of parental neglect. But they can be.

It can be even harder to identify and intervene in neglect cases when a child is attending boarding school, or their parents are living out of the area or even overseas. This adds another layer of complexity and can prove challenging, not only for identifying home issues but also for communicating with parents to improve outcomes for the child.

What is the impact?

The emotional neglect and lack of supervision sometimes faced by children from affluent families are known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs can affect brain development; and change how a young person’s body will respond to stress, both now in the future.

As with all abuse, ACEs have a lasting impact on an individual and the consequences of these adverse experiences can lead to long-term mental and physical health problems, as well as an increased likelihood of a sever outcome occurring such as substance misuse and addiction in adulthood.

Marilyn Hawes

Marilyn is the Founder of the charity Freedom From Abuse ( which provides support and resources to educate users on how to identify an abuser, report abuse and protect children in their care. A survivor of abuse herself, she was named as Inspirational Woman of the Year in 2017.

Parental emotional neglect

In wealthy families, it can be the case that parents work long hours, leaving children in the care of paid carers. This can create an emotional disconnect and leave children feeling lonely, with their emotional needs unfulfilled by their parents.

It has also been suggested that, as well as not spending quality time with their children, affluent parents may put a high amount of pressure on their children to succeed academically, which can sometimes lead to psychological and emotional problems for the students.

Parental deficits were often masked by the fact that ‘hired help’ such as nannies, private healthcare providers and schools were able to fulfil parenting roles for such affluent parents, hiding issues of neglect from practitioners.

Afluent parents with drug or alcohol problems also have the financial resources to access private treatment to “remove themselves from the spotlight of social services”, my research highlights.

Resistance to joint-working

A further complexity for social workers was rich parents living overseas or out of the authority’s areas where they were paying for their children to attend private or boarding school. This added to the complexity of safeguarding children when concerns about child abuse and neglect were flagged up.

Practitioners described the complexity of getting schools to acknowledge their safeguarding responsibilities to ensure that all safeguarding allegations were handled appropriately.

Independent boarding schools posed a problem as participants consistently reported that they struggled to even envisage these children as being in need or at risk of significant harm because of neglect. Surely, it couldn't; happen to them? Could it?

Yes it can.

Participants in my research described that, in their dealings with boarding schools, staff were not always clear about signs and symptoms of neglect, and their awareness that neglect may be an indicator that other forms of abuse may be taking place was very limited.

In some cases, the designated safeguarding leads in fee-paying and boarding schools were often very reluctant to raise concerns with parents and to report safeguarding concerns about neglect to children’s social care. They were also often resistant to joint-working.

Results indicate that social workers must navigate complex power relationships with parents who are able to use their class privileges to resist their interventions. This is a very difficult area to navigate for practitioners as wealthy parents have the facility to threaten to use, and indeed actually employ, expensive lawyers to protect themselves, hoping the authorities and school will “back off.”