Regarding types of maltreatment, 78.5 percent of the victims suffered neglect, nearly 18 percent were physically abused and 9.1 percent were sexually abused. The report tallied 61,472 children who were sexually abused in 2011 -- down dramatically from the peak of about 150,000 in 1992.
The report, formally known as the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, is based on input from child protection agencies in every state. About four-fifths of the reports received by the agencies do not lead to findings of maltreatment, according to the report.
Sociologist David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, says he finds the annual reports frustrating because of the lack of analysis of the trends.
"But at the same time, it does appear remarkable that overall child maltreatment has declined given that unemployment has been so high, the housing and mortgage crisis has continued, and state and local budgets for family and child services have been cut," he wrote in an email.
Richard Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice and an expert on child welfare, noted that the decline in child maltreatment meshed with declines in the overall violent crime rate, the homicide rate and the level of violence against women.
Gelles said some child-protection advocates contend the declining child-abuse rates are a mirage, reflecting a tendency by child welfare agencies to investigate fewer cases in this era of tight budgets. But he contended that the decline is real -- due in part to more adults delaying marriage and child-bearing, and thus reducing the number of high-risk situations where young, financially struggling adults are raising children that they can barely support.