NEW YORK – The rate of child maltreatment in the U.S. decreased in 2009 for the third consecutive year, according to new federal figures.
Although the decrease was slight, it ran counter to the predictions of some experts that the onset of the recession in late 2008 would trigger an upsurge of abuse.
The annual report from the Department of Health and Human Services, issued Thursday, said the estimated number of victimized children dropped from 772,000 in 2008 to 763,000 last year. That's down from 903,000 in 2006.
The rate of abuse was 10.1 per 1,000 children, down from 10.3 in 2008, to reach the lowest level since the current tracking system began in 1990.
The number of fatalities arising from abuse and neglect, however, rose slightly, from 1,740 in 2008 to 1,770 last year.
More than 80 percent of the fatalities were 3 or younger, while infants less than 1 year old had the highest overall rate of abuse and neglect. Of the perpetrators, four-fifths were the parents of the victim.
David A. Hansell, the HHS acting assistant secretary for children and families, said he was pleased by the continued decrease in maltreatment.
"However, we also know even one child abused is one too many," he said in a statement urging more support for preventive programs and services.
David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire sociologist who is a leading authority on child abuse, said some people might attribute the decline in maltreatment reports to cuts in spending for investigation. But he said researchers thus far have not found evidence to support this interpretation and noted that crime also declined in 2009, contrary to expectations related to economic hard times.
"My view is that some of the improvements we have achieved that are bringing down violence and child abuse are deeply rooted and resistant to short term influences like unemployment and economic stress," Finkelhor said.
These might include improved parenting skills, psychiatric medication and increased surveillance, he suggested.
Of the victims, 78 percent suffered neglect, nearly 18 percent were physically abused, 9.5 percent were sexually abused and 7.6 percent suffered psychological maltreatment.
Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform said much of the speculation about child abuse increasing during a recession "actually is a reflection of more people becoming poor and having that poverty itself mislabeled 'neglect.'"
The new report "suggests that, at long last, child welfare systems are getting better at distinguishing actual maltreatment from poverty itself," Wexler said. "They're getting a little more careful about trying to help families instead of tearing them apart.
Earlier this week, a recently formed coalition of five organizations urged the federal government to do more to reduce child-abuse fatalities.
The National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths called for an increase in federal funding of $3 billion to $5 billion, an increase in home visits to troubled families, and changes in confidentiality laws that limit information jurisdictions can release about abuse cases.
Administration for Children and Families: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/