12/12/2012 02:39 EST | Updated 02/11/2013 05:12 EST

New federal data: Child abuse declines for 5th straight year; abuse deaths at 5-year low

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Reports of child abuse and neglect have dropped nationwide for the fifth consecutive year, and abuse-related child fatalities also are at a five-year low, according to new federal statistics.

The latest annual report from the Department of Health and Human Services, released Wednesday, estimates that there were 681,000 cases of child abuse or neglect across the nation in the 2011 fiscal year. That's down from 695,000 in 2010 and from 723,000 in 2007.

"We have made excellent progress over the past five years," said George Sheldon, HHS acting assistant secretary for children and families. "But what this report tells me is that we still have 681,000 children out there who need our help."

The number of abuse-related fatalities was estimated at 1,570 — down from 1,580 in 2010 and from 1,720 in 2007. About fourfifths of those killed were younger than 4, and parents were deemed responsible for nearly four-fifths of the deaths.

Texas had the most fatalities, with 246, followed by Florida with 133, while Montana reported no abuse-related deaths. The highest rates of child fatalities were in Louisiana, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

Regarding the overall maltreatment figures, white children accounted for almost 44 per cent of the victims, black children for 21.5 per cent and Hispanic children for 22.1 per cent. About 11 per cent of the victims were physically or mentally disabled.

Regarding types of maltreatment, 78.5 per cent of the victims suffered neglect, nearly 18 per cent were physically abused and 9.1 per cent were sexually abused. The report tallied 61,472 children who were sexually abused in 2011 — down dramatically from the peak of about 150,000 in 1992.

The report, formally known as the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, is based on input from child protection agencies in every state. About four-fifths of the reports received by the agencies do not lead to findings of maltreatment, according to the report.

Sociologist David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, says he finds the annual reports frustrating because of the lack of analysis of the trends.

"But at the same time, it does appear remarkable that overall child maltreatment has declined given that unemployment has been so high, the housing and mortgage crisis has continued, and state and local budgets for family and child services have been cut," he wrote in an email.

Richard Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice and an expert on child welfare, noted that the decline in child maltreatment meshed with declines in the overall violent crime rate, the homicide rate and the level of violence against women.

Gelles said some child-protection advocates contend the declining child-abuse rates are a mirage, reflecting a tendency by child welfare agencies to investigate fewer cases in this era of tight budgets. But he contended that the decline is real — due in part to more adults delaying marriage and child-bearing, and thus reducing the number of high-risk situations where young, financially struggling adults are raising children that they can barely support.



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