The number of U.S. children suspected of suffering abuse or neglect dropped for the fifth year in a row in 2011, the federal government said Wednesday.
The number of child fatalities also fell to a five-year low, but still stood at 1,570 deaths nationwide.
The annual “Child Maltreatment” report shows “excellent progress” in the past five years, said George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the Department of Health and Human Services.
“But what this report tells me is that we still have 681,000 children out there who need our help,” he said, urging federal, state and local agencies to step up efforts to prevent neglect and abuse in families.
In fiscal 2011, some 3.4 million referrals were made to child protective service (CPS) agencies about abused or neglected children.
More than half of referrals came from a professional worker — often a “mandated reporter” — who knew the child, such as a teacher, police officer, social-service worker or health care worker. An additional 18 percent of referrals came from friends, neighbors and relatives, while 24 percent came from anonymous or other “unknown” sources.
More than 2 million reports were investigated by CPS workers, but the 2011 figure of 681,000 documented victims is significantly lower than in 2007, when 723,000 children were found to be victims of maltreatment, the ACF report said. Analysts say one of the reasons for the decline could be that more states are offering programs that intervene in families’ lives and address problems at an earlier stage.
Babies and toddlers were the most vulnerable to mistreatment, and accounted for 27 percent of victims in 2011.
The most common form of maltreatment was neglect (endured by 79 percent of victims), followed by physical abuse (18 percent) and sexual abuse (9 percent). In addition, 10 percent of children were endangered by such things as “lack of supervision” or parental substance abuse, the report said.
Of the 61,472 children who were sexually abused, more than half were aged 11 or younger; of these, 1,650 were babies and toddlers younger than age 2.
Parents, either acting alone or with others, were the most common abuser, accounting for more than 80 percent of cases. Mothers were the perpetrators in 37 percent of cases.
Among nonparent abusers, boyfriends and relatives were most represented. In contrast, foster parents were rarely implicated in neglect or abuse.
A House hearing Wednesday examined one searing case behind the data.
Devin Drake, 3, died in 2011 from injuries he suffered at his Minnesota home. Under questioning, his mother and her boyfriend admitted that the boyfriend had hit the boy and that he fell and hit his head on a hard floor. Despite the boy’s injuries — later determined to be severe head trauma, punctured lungs and many contusions — neither adult took him to the hospital until it was too late.
“Nothing is more heartbreaking than when a child like Devin dies at the hands of someone who should have cared for him most,” Rep. Erik Paulsen, Minnesota Republican and acting chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources, said.