Kentucky continues to lead the nation in child abuse and neglect, according to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The report, for the second year in a row, ranked Kentucky first among all states in child maltreatment, based on data from the 2018 federal fiscal year. Kentucky has ranked either first or second for the past seven years and in the top 10 for more than a decade.

People struggling to stem the tide of child abuse and neglect in Kentucky say they are disappointed but not surprised, given the addiction epidemic, extreme poverty, mental illness and violence afflicting so many households.

“I think it is without question one of most serious public health issues pertaining to kids here in Kentucky,” said Dr. Melissa Currie, a forensic pediatrician in Louisville.

“It’s disappointing. It’s disheartening,” said Keith Inman, president of Kosair Charities, which sponsors the Face It campaign to end child abuse in Kentucky. “We need to do more.”

Gov. Andy Beshear, who is seeking $31.5 million to hire 350 more social workers over the next two years to expand a chronically understaffed social service system, said Kentucky’s children are “falling through the cracks.”

“One of the most important roles of government is the protection of our children,” said a statement provided by Beshear spokeswoman Crystal Staley. “This is unacceptable for our state to lead the nation in child abuse and neglect.”

The Courier Journal reported last year that Kentucky led the nation in abuse and neglect with increasingly violent, sometimes fatal injuries to children so severe an outside panel classified some cases as torture.

A record number of nearly 10,000 children remain in foster care, removed from homes because of abuse or neglect, despite state efforts to reduce the numbers.

The independent Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel found as many as 51 children who died in 2017 suffered abuse or neglect, although the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services puts the number much lower, at 16, using a narrower standard.

The annual federal Child Maltreatment report relies on figures reported by the state, which means Kentucky’s problem may be far worse, according to experts including Currie, who is a member of the panel.

“I have no doubt that cases are being undercounted,” Currie told The Courier Journal last year. “I don’t necessarily think that’s intentional on anybody’s part or from bad motivations. I think it’s just the nature of how the system works right now.”

Meanwhile, the state has struggled to hire and retain enough workers to do their jobs in a bare-bones state social service system that has undergone repeated rounds of budget cuts since the 2008 recession.

“It’s like it’s just always overwhelming,” said Bullitt County Family Court Judge Elise Givhan Spainhour. “Until people decide they’re going put their money where their mouth is in terms of children, we’ve got a problem.”

Beshear, a Democrat, promoted his proposal to hire more staff on a recent visit to the Louisville social services office where workers are struggling under some of the highest caseloads in the state.

“This is one where I hope we can all agree that we want to make sure we’re not No. 1 in abuse and neglect,” Beshear said.

Republican lawmakers who control the General Assembly are drafting their version of the budget and have not committed to more money for more social workers.

The issue has also attracted the attention of Kentucky’s new attorney general, Daniel Cameron, a Republican sworn in this year. At a news conference in January, he called child abuse “a scourge that has plagued our commonwealth for far too long,” and pledged to use his office to combat it.

But the problem appears to have worsened.

The federal report released in January shows that Kentucky’s child abuse rate edged up from the year before.

Kentucky’s children suffered from abuse or neglect at a rate of 23.5 per 1,000 children, according to the latest report that covered the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2018. The previous year, Kentucky’s abuse and neglect rate was 22.2 per 1,000 children.

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