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Child-Abuse Reports in 1989 Up 10% Over '88, State-by-State Survey Finds

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By Lisa Jennings

Washington--More than 2.4 million incidents of child abuse or neglect were reported to child-protective-service agencies last year, a 10 percent increase over the previous year's total, findings from a state-by-state survey released here last week reveal.

The survey results show, moreover, that the number of children who died from neglect or abuse--more than 1,200--jumped by 38 percent last year.

The statistics were gathered and analyzed by the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, an independent nonprofit agency, as part of its efforts to monitor trends in the number and characteristics of child-abuse reports nationwide.

The annual 50-state survey was begun in 1982. Officials said this year's data showed the sharpest increase in reported cases since 1985, a fact they attributed in part to increases in the level of substance abuse.

Information collected from child-protective-service agencies in each state was analyzed, though not all states could offer complete information on all issues covered in the report.

The results showed a wide range of increases among the states showing growth in abuse reporting. Thirty eight states reported increases, which ranged from 1 percent to 87 percent. Only five states reported a decrease, and six states reported no change.

The most significant decline was noted in Hawaii, where abuse reports dropped by 30 percent. The decline was attributed, in part, to vigorous prevention efforts by the public, private, and military sectors there.

The report calls the increase in the number of abuse-related fatalities particularly disturbing. Though it may be attributed in part to im4proved reporting procedures, the document says, figures nonetheless show that, over the past four years, a minimum of three children per day have died as a result of abuse.

"Reporting phenomenon or not, this sustained level of violence calls into question society's commitment to protecting children," the report asserts.

Researchers in the field also contend that abuse-related fatality reports are likely to be low because many suspicious deaths among children are often labeled as accidents.

Survey respondents offered as the primary explanation for the increase in reports of maltreatment the increase in substance abuse. Other social problems they identified as contributing factors include poverty, lack of medical and child care, homelessness, and domestic violence.

In addition to improvements in state reporting procedures, officials cited the limited availability of prevention services as possibly having influenced the number of reports.

In the 15 states that reported the ages of children who died of maltreatment, more than half of the victims were less than 1 year old. This finding, the committee said, underscores the need for early-intervention strategies targeted to new parents, particularly adolescents, substance abusers, and others at high risk.

The report also calls for an expansion of child-welfare budgets to allow for adequate investigation of abuse reports and better support services. Only 21 states reported an increase in such funding, and most were cost-of-living adjustments.

Also needed, the report says, is an expansion of the foster-care system, and more comprehensive prevention services offered through public institutions, such as schools.

Preventive services were regarded favorably by most survey respondents. They included life-skills training and assault-prevention education programs in elementary and high8schools; education and support services for new parents and parents under stress; treatment and placement services for abused and neglected children; crisis intervention; and public information and education.

The ncpca also released last week the results of a national opinion poll on discipline and child-abuse prevention.

According to officials, the poll results indicate attitudes toward physical forms of discipline, and such adjuncts to them as yelling and swearing at children, are changing.

A total of 1,250 people nationwide were interviewed in January for this year's poll, including 460 parents living with children under age 18.

Fewer of those surveyed than in the past said they believe physical punishment of a child frequently leads to injury. Only 35 percent of the respondents this year said it "often or very often leads to injury," compared with 40 percent of those surveyed in 1987.

But only 5 percent of the parents surveyed this year said they spanked or hit their child at least once a month to discipline them. That number had dropped from 8 percent in the 1989 poll, but was an increase over the 4 percent recorded in 1988.

The number of parents who said they never spanked or hit their children rose to 49 percent this year, up from 39 percent the previous year.

Most of the respondents said they believe repeated yelling and swearing at a child leads to long-term emotional problems. Seventy six percent said yelling and swearing "often or very often results" in emotional problems, as opposed to 73 percent who said so in 1987.

A majority of parents--60 percent--said they never insult or swear at their children. That figure was up from 49 percent the previous year.

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