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Reporting error inflates Md. child abuse cases

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services included a startling statistic: The number of abused or neglected children in Maryland in 2014 had climbed 27 percent, the second-sharpest increase in the nation.

But state officials say that the figure was inflated because of a reporting error. It turns out that the number of cases depends on how a state defines a victim.

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The federal government has been gathering state-level child abuse and neglect data for more than two decades, tracking the time it takes for Child Protective Services to respond to a report of child abuse, for instance, and the number of cases that are substantiated after an investigation.

The most recent installment of that data, which was released in late January and covers 2014, identified 15,800 children in Maryland who were victims of abuse or neglect — up from just over 12,000 cases the year before. Only Massachusetts had a larger year-over-year increase in abuse cases.

But officials at the Maryland Department of Human Resources said the federal number should not include children who are assisted through a new effort to segregate "low-risk" cases and work with those families to improve the situation at home rather than conduct a formal investigation.

That effort, known as "alternative response," was fully implemented in Maryland in 2014.

"We have determined that Maryland should not have counted any of the children receiving alternative response as victims," DHR spokeswoman Paula Tolson said in a statement. "Maryland therefore will be resubmitting 2014 data to correct this error."

The alternative response approach is designed to lessen the adversarial relationship between families and caseworkers. While many child advocates regard it as a best practice, some critics question whether the two-track system does enough to keep children safe.

Federal child abuse data are voluntarily reported by states, and individual state law determines who is a victim.

Instead of a 27 percent increase, Tolson said, the updated data would reflect a 20 percent decrease in child victims from 2013 to 2014.

The number of child fatalities in the state from abuse or neglect fell slightly, from 27 in 2013 to 23 the following year, according to the federal report. The state also reduced the amount of time it takes for Child Protective Services workers to respond to a report of abuse to 50 hours, under the national average of 75 hours.

The federal report found a 3 percent increase in child abuse and neglect cases nationwide. Federal officials have pointed to substance abuse and domestic violence to explain the national increases in cases.

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