Massachusetts reported the highest rate of abused and neglected children in the nation in fiscal year 2014 and had nearly the same number of victimized children the following year, according to newly released state and federal figures.
The sharp increase in reported abuse cases comes amid a string of high-profile cases of children who died or were severely injured — some while being overseen by the state's child welfare agency.
Massachusetts tallied 31,863 victimized children in the federal government's fiscal 2014, which concluded at the end of September 2014, according to a report by the US Department of Health and Human Services. That equaled 22.9 victims per 1,000 children statewide, making it the highest per capita rate in the country.
The next-highest rates of reported child abuse were in Kentucky (20.6), Rhode Island (16), New York (15.5), and New Mexico (15.2).
In the fiscal year ended in September 2015, the state tallied 31,114 victims, or 22.4 per 1,000 children.
National figures are not yet available for the more recent year.
State officials attributed the increased number of reported cases to greater public awareness and increased vigilance by the state.
Advocates also blamed the opioid crisis, pointing to a number of cases in which addicted parents had abused or neglected their children.
"The issue of child abuse and neglect is now in the forefront of everybody's minds in the Commonwealth," said Maria Z. Mossaides, head of the state Office of the Child Advocate . "What we're seeing is the cumulative effect of a handful of very tragic cases, and the continued attention to this issue on the part of key policy makers."
Public attention on the state's child welfare system intensified in December 2013, when the Department of Children and Families announced that it had lost track of a Fitchburg preschooler, Jeremiah Oliver. He was later found dead by the side of a highway.
A string of other heartbreaking stories followed, and with them several reports critical of the DCF. The agency has been hobbled by high caseloads for social workers, a backlog of cases, and an overwhelmed foster care system.
Governor Charlie Baker has proposed allocating $12 million for 281 new hires at the DCF, including scores of social workers and 22 supervisors, and ordered a number of improvements, including more thorough investigations for the increasing number of cases.
The state is "initiating an unprecedented, multi-pronged and multi-year reform effort to keep kids safe," DCF spokeswoman Andrea Grossman said in response to the latest child abuse figures.
The federal report, released late last month, was a compilation of child abuse and neglect statistics nationwide for fiscal 2014.
The total number of children victimized in Massachusetts during fiscal 2014 was 57 percent higher than in the prior year, when 20,307 children were victimized, and far higher than in any year since 2010, the earliest year of data included in the report.
Nationally, 702,208 children were reported to have been abused and neglected during fiscal 2014, or about 9.4 victims per 1,000 children, less than half the Massachusetts rate, the report said.
The total number of victimized children in the United States was about 2.9 percent higher than it was in the year before.
Rafael López, commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at Health and Human Services, said state officials across the nation have reported that parental drug abuse, mental health issues, and domestic violence are contributing to increases in child abuse and neglect.
"We need to shift our focus to the front-end prevention of child abuse and neglect and make sure that families get the help they need when they need it," López said in a statement.
Mary McGeown, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said research showed that children whose parents abuse drugs or alcohol are three times more likely to be abused and four times more likely to be neglected than children whose parents don't abuse substances.
Massachusetts has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, and that "is having a bad outcome for kids," she said.
A 48 percent increase in neglect — by far the most common type of maltreatment, both locally and nationally — appears to have driven much of the increase in the victims tally.
"An increase in neglect is often tied to drug abuse," said professor David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
McGeown said other underlying factors are poverty and a lack of stable housing.
"Kids who live in poverty are 22 percent more likely to be abused or neglected than children raised not in poverty," she said.
State Senator Michael J. Barrett, the former Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said:
"The question is now, since we probably have a better sense of what we're confronted with than many other states do, what's our next move?"
He said the state would have to spend more money to make its system of monitoring children effective.
McGeown said she was encouraged by steps the state has taken to address the DCF's shortcomings and the opioid epidemic, but more needs to be done in other areas.
"We need to make sure we look at the larger community and see what can we do to help these kids and their families long before they reach DCF," she said.