AUSTIN – At first glance, the latest federal figures on U.S. child maltreatment generally are encouraging - but not in Texas, where the number of official reports of abuse and neglect increased somewhat from 2008 to 2010, the last year tracked by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Jane Burstain, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, suggests taking a closer look at the data.
"Don't be so quick to say a reduction in the number of identified victims means that there's less abuse and neglect going on. There's a lot of factors that go into whether someone is identified."
One of the chief variables, she says, is the availability of resources by states to investigate and provide services. While many states were already coping with cuts to family-service budgets during the years covered by the HHS report, she says, Texas did not see big cuts until later. As a result, state agencies were able to field and process a higher percentage of incidents - causing its abuse numbers to appear relatively high.
Burstain fears future data might give the false impression that maltreatment is going down in Texas.
"The budget for child-protective services was cut in 2011, and then it was further cut in 2012 and 2013. So, fewer resources may translate into helping fewer families."
Research has shown that the risk of abuse increases when poverty is higher - so, Burstain says, it's unlikely that the number of actual incidents went down nationally during the past recession, since more families were struggling.
Officially, Texas reported about 65,000 victims of child abuse or neglect in 2010. Burstain says it's impossible to know the true numbers, and adds that just because a referral is officially processed doesn't mean the child received help.
"Even in some of the best economic times we don't provide services to all the victims of abuse and neglect. Even in 2008, four of every 10 victims weren't getting any services."
Agencies, she says, are forced to be selective about which accusations they follow up on because they simply lack the resources to investigate every referral.
The HHS maltreatment report is online at acf.hhs.gov.