ST. LOUIS -- Cases of child abuse and neglect rose slightly in 2001 for the second straight year, government officials said.
The increase was not statistically significant but Prevent Child Abuse America, a private group in Chicago, worried that it could be the start of a new trend.
Officials could not say what accounted for the increase in 2001, the last year for which data are available. But Prevent Child Abuse America said the stress of an economic downturn and unemployment increases the risk of child abuse.
About 1,300 children died of abuse or neglect in 2001, 100 more than in the previous year. Overall, 903,000 children were victimized, said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services.
''The good news is that the overall rate has not significantly increased from the previous year,'' Horn said. ''The bad news is that there were 903,000 children who were victims of abuse and neglect. That's 903,000 too many.''
Confirmed maltreatment cases peaked in 1993, with 15.3 per 1,000 children. The rate fell for six straight years, hitting 11.8 per thousand in 1999. In 2000, there were 12.2 cases per thousand.
In 2001, there were 12.4 cases per thousand, or a total of about 903,000, the agency said.
Child protective service agencies across the country received 2.6 million referrals in 2001, according to data reported to the federal government. About a third of them were substantiated after investigation; the majority were cases of neglect.
Of those that were confirmed, 59 percent suffered neglect, 18 percent were physically abused, 10 percent were sexually abused and 7 percent were psychologically maltreated.
Consistent with previous years, 81 percent of perpetrators were parents.
Horn, joined by Sid Johnson, president of Prevent Child Abuse America, presented the results at a news conference in St. Louis, site of a national conference this week on child abuse and neglect.
Both Horn and Johnson emphasized the importance of prevention, but they didn't agree about how that should happen.
Horn focused on the Bush administration's proposed granting of modified block grants to states' child welfare systems, an attempt to give states more flexibility and fewer rules. Under the plan, states could use some money now designated solely for foster care for abuse prevention.
Johnson said he likes the flexibility but has reservations. He said he worries that the financial risk would shift from the federal government to the states ''and ultimately children'' if a capped five-year block grant was not enough to cover any spiraling of abuse cases.
Democratic legislation introduced Tuesday by U.S. Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland and George Miller of California would, among other things, give performance bonuses and grants to states that improve their child welfare systems and improve the quality, training and retention of caseworkers.
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