Despite heart-rending news stories detailing heinous crimes against New Hampshire children, the number of substantiated child sexual and physical abuse cases dropped dramatically from 1992 to 2011, according to a leading researcher into child maltreatment.
Sexual abuse dropped 81 percent and physical abuse 70 percent in the state during that time, while neglect increased 88 percent, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Nationwide, physical abuse decreased 56 percent and sexual abuse dropped 63 percent, Finkelhor noted.
At the same time, a handful of studies contradict those declines, raising questions about how states report and substantiate allegations and whether they capture a true picture of child abuse and neglect.
The declines are likely due to increased awareness and changes in behavior, Finkelhor said. Other factors could include changes in investigations, reporting practices, definitions and administrative procedures, he said.
"One of (the factors) is the large effort that has been put into programs to raise awareness and prevent abuse," Finkelhor said. "More police and child welfare professionals trained to intervene, better treatments, and changed attitudes toward children and their needs also played a role."
A national study showed abuse injuries that required hospitalization increased 5 percent during the time Finkelhor cited a large decrease. (See related story.) Hospitalizations for newborns and children up to age 1 increased 11 percent during that period.
Some child advocates and prosecutors also question the decline, especially since the number of child abuse-related calls to the state Division for Children, Youth and Families climbed to 15,177 in 2012, while the percentage substantiated after investigation dropped to about 7 percent, much lower than the national average of about 18 percent.
Why, advocates wondered, would New Hampshire report a total of 876 child maltreatment victims in 2011 when neighboring Maine - which has about the same number of children - reported 3,118 victims?
From 2010 to 2011 alone, New Hampshire showed a decline of 17 percent in sex abuse and 30 percent in physical abuse and an increase of 11 percent in neglect, Finkelor reported in January.
It's possible that more severe abuse that leads to hospital stays - a small percentage of all child abuse - is tracking differently, he said.
Finkelhor's numbers come from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, which publishes statistics reported by the state Division for Children, Youth and Families and the other state child protection agencies.
Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams, who has been prosecuting crimes against children for many years, said the decline is suspect, even though prevention programs and holding perpetrators accountable are making good progress.
County attorneys do not track crimes by age of the victim, so there is no way to know whether more child sexual abuse and serious physical abuse are being prosecuted in criminal courts.
"I suspect that there is a lot more going on here than statistics are capturing," Reams said.
Reams' office is prosecuting Jessica Linscott and her boyfriend, Roland Dow of Plaistow, in connection with the beating and burning of Linscott's 3-year-old son last November. The boy suffered seizures and a traumatic brain injury.
In New Hampshire, all sexual assault cases are considered crimes.
All but the most serious cases of physical abuse are handled civilly in family court by DCYF.
DCYF cases are confidential by law, so the public rarely gets to see how they work. DCYF's goal is to protect children while keeping the family together when possible, according to Director Maggie Bishop.
Bishop said the drop in substantiation rates from 2008 to 2011 from 10 to 7 percent parallels a change in state law in 2007 that makes it harder to investigate suspected abuse. The change requires social workers to make it clear to parents that they don't have to let social workers in without a court order.
"When we knock on the door, the first thing we have to say is they don't have to speak to us," Bishop said.
The change also required DCYF to videotape child interviews, she said.
"These have impacted our ability to get detailed information," Bishop said, adding there are other factors, too.
Children often refuse to disclose problems the first time they speak with social workers, Bishop said.
"There are times we have concerns, but the child won't tell us what happened or the parents won't let us in," Bishop said.
"We have to walk away and wait until we get a second call six months later."
Some of those cases end up with children getting hurt seriously enough to warrant criminal charges before the second or even third call comes in, she said.
She didn't know why Maine substantiates so many more cases than New Hampshire, except to say workers there would make determinations based on what their state law requires.
"Sometimes the community gets frustrated when we go out and make an unfounded determination," Bishop said.
"Unfounded'' doesn't mean abuse didn't occur, she said. It just means the division couldn't prove the case by showing an injury was not accidental or that it was intentionally inflicted by a parent or caretaker.
Some abuse cases are filed as neglect because it is easier to prove, she said.
"People shouldn't stop calling us," Bishop said. "Maybe the new information they have will help prove the case."
Rep. Dan Itse, R-Fremont, said he submitted the 2007 legislation in response to past abuses by DCYF, mentioning several cases in which parents complained publicly they were being wrongly accused by an overzealous agency.
"They (DCYF) were telling people, 'You have to let us in.' The government is not supposed to have access to your house unless it has just cause and a warrant," Itse said.
If DCYF really thinks something is going on because of a report from a school or hospital, social workers can get an ex-parte order that day, he said.
Itse said all child abuse will never be uncovered.
"My gut tells me we're pretty effective," Itse said. "I don't know if we could be more effective without violating principles of fundamental liberties."
Strafford County Attorney Tom Velardi said his office sees a steady stream of sex abuse cases against children and a few criminal physical abuse cases, as well.
The steep decline cited by Finkelhor doesn't match his experience, Velardi said.
"In all honestly, that is not reflective of what we are dealing with," said Velardi.
Last month, Velardi's office obtained a first-degree assault conviction against Christina Thomas of New Durham for starving a boy in her care and forcing him to stay in a dog cage at times from the ages of 3 to 6.
DCYF's Bishop cautioned against relying on the number of cases that come to light.
"I don't think my data or the hospital data show the entire picture of child abuse and neglect," Bishop said.
Most will never get reported, she said.
"It's a secret," Bishop said. "It is not something people broadcast or do publicly."