The tidal wave of child abuse and neglect that has cascaded across the United States over the past 15 years is ebbing and because states are now taking a more aggressive approach to the problem, there is reason to hope the declines will continue, experts say.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that cases of neglected and abused children fell for the fifth straight year in 1998.
To be sure, the drop has been modest. In 1998, about 903,000 children were found to be victims of maltreatment, down 11 percent from a ten-year high of 1,018,692 children in 1993, but still higher than the 877,000 cases reported in 1990.
Last year, almost 13 of every 1,000 children were mistreated by their caretakers. The majority of them were victims of neglect, but almost a quarter, 23 percent, had been physically abused.
The District of Columbia, Alaska, Florida and Kentucky reported the highest incidence of maltreatment.
"Certainly we have a significant number and certainly it's an unacceptable number," said Michael Kharfen, communications director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But Kharfen also says he sees more reason for optimism now than at any time in the past 15 years. "We are in a climate where the child welfare system is moving in a direction that is more hopeful for kids than ever before," he said.
In a strong economy, more parents are better able to provide for their children. Declines in teen births and in drug and alcohol abuse by adults may also be factors, Kharfen says. Some studies have found that drug and alcohol addiction account for as much as 70 percent of abuse and neglect cases. Younger parents are also more likely to mistreat their children.
But the hope of advocates stems mostly from the movement at the state and federal level to address some of the chronic problems in the nation's approach to child welfare.
More than 100 state and local child welfare agencies are still operating under court supervision, the result of lawsuits by child advocates, Kharfen says.
And caseloads of investigators are still too high, experts say. States reported their caseworkers handled an average of 94 inquiries in 1998. Even though two-thirds of abuse reports do not pan out, the optimum workload should be 17 cases apiece, experts say.
Many states have increased funding in the past few years to hire new caseworkers and to reduce staff turnover. In a recent study of spending on human services in four states -- Georgia, Missouri, California and Wisconsin -- the Rockefeller Institute of Government found all had raised the budgets of their child welfare agencies significantly. In the four states, federal and state spending increased by at least a third from 1995 to 1999.
Linda Spears of the Child Welfare League says the sheer amount of child abuse has probably not fallen. Instead, the national decline reflects an increased dedication by states to intervene earlier with families in trouble, she says.
The federal government, which provides about 55 percent of child welfare spending, has granted waivers to some states to experiment with new approaches, particularly prevention.
Spears cites Kentucky, Alaska and Florida as three states that are aggressively directing resources into child welfare. These three states reported the highest rates of abuse in 1998. More than 23 children out of every 1,000 suffered abuse in Kentucky and Florida and more than 37 of 1,000 in Alaska.
Spears says those very high rates likely reflect the states' renewed efforts to address the problem