MURFREESBORO — While physical and sexual abuse are serious threats to some of Rutherford County’s children, cases of abusive neglect are at least twice as common, according to local child support advocates.

Criminal neglect involves failing to provide children with adequate food, clothing, supervision, protection from known dangers, safe and hygienic shelter, education, medical care and nurturing, said Dawn Eaton, executive director for The Family Center in Murfreesboro. The nonprofit, which offers parenting classes, spent the past four weeks pushing this message through a social media campaign, as April is Child Abuse Prevention month.

The effects of withholding affection and nurturing are not as visible as bruises, broken bones or black eyes, but the long-term ramifications can be just as serious, Eaton said. Children who are not held and given attention have decreased brain development, and the results are difficult or impossible to reverse.

“The way that your brain grows is through experience,” said Jennifer Drake-Croft, director of parent education at The Family Center. “If you don’t have a parent who’s counting your toes, reading to you or taking care of you when you’re sick... you don’t have those foundations for lifelong brain health.”

Criminal neglect can take many forms, Drake-Croft said. In the first three years of life, it is essential for children to be well fed, clean and regularly held and comforted.

Neglected children often have problems socializing as adolescents and adults, Drake-Croft said. Abused children in general are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as juveniles, 25 percent more likely to experience teen pregnancy, 30 percent more likely to commit a violent crime and 25 percent more likely to experience delinquency and drug use.

The cost is also fiscal, Eaton said: Every year, $125 billion are spent by the government nationwide providing aid to abused children, sending parents through the judicial system and incarcerating convicted adults and juveniles. While state programs are helpful, they only attack the problem from one side.

“As a society, we’ve got to shift to prevention from spending money on intervention,” Eaton said.

Child abuse is often cyclical, Drake-Croft said. Thirty percent of abused children, including neglected children, will go on to abuse their own kids. The Family Center hosts classes for people ordered there by the court, inmates at the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center and other at-risk families.

“We’re teaching them basic, effective parenting skills,” Drake-Croft said. “They’ve got a barrier because they don’t know how to show affection or attention to their kids even though they love them, but they’ve got a motivation because they’ve been a victim, too.”

Christopher Merchant can be contacted atcmerchant@dnj.com and 615-278-5109. Follow him on Twitter @c_merchant.