CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia child-welfare officials say the number of active abuse and neglect cases has been climbing in the past two years, but they're still handling fewer than they were five years ago.
The state Department of Health and Human Resources says its workers took action in 1,569 cases in March 2013. That's down from an average of 2,300 cases per month in 2007.
The Charleston Daily Mail says the lower numbers may be the result of a more comprehensive three-step system the state began using in 2010 to review complaints.
Kathie King of the Bureau for Children and Families says it's possible there are fewer duplicate referrals today than in 2008, and the state is also investing more in prevention and education.
The reduction may also be because of a change in the way cases are handled when children are not considered in any immediate danger, King said. Work that was previously handled in-house might now be contracted out to a social service agency.
"Some families just need supportive services," she said.
The number of active abuse and neglect cases fell from 2008 through 2010, hitting a low of 1,483 per month. But the DHHR says the numbers began climbing again, averaging 1,542 cases per month last year.
"We're not certain we know exactly why the numbers have gone down," King said, "but they are trending back up."
Last year, a national study found that children are dying from abuse and neglect at a higher rate in West Virginia than any other state, a problem that judges, social workers and others say is fueled by rampant substance abuse in families.
But communities, particularly in the most rural and least populated areas, typically lack a sufficient safety net of foster care, adoptive families, in-home services and community-based prevention and treatment programs for addicted parents and their children.
Cases of abuse and neglect are clogging the state's criminal court system, and troubled children further burden the justice system when they skip school, use drugs, become violent and commit crimes.