BOSTON — The rate of child abuse and neglect cases reported in Massachusetts is higher than any other state, according to new federal data, but advocates for children say the dubious ranking is actually a sign of progress.

From 2012 to 2016, cases of reported abuse in Massachusetts increased 67 percent to 32,093, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's latest report on child maltreatment.

In federal fiscal year 2016, the state's rate of 23.3 victims per 1,000 children was more than double the national average of 9.1 per 1,000 children.

It marked the third year in a row that Massachusetts had the highest rate of child maltreatment in the nation.

Advocates say the data, while troubling, reflect the state’s aggressive stance toward identifying and investigating allegations of neglect and abuse.

Thomas King, executive director of the Massachusetts Children's Alliance, an independent advocacy group, said the state has one of the nation's lowest thresholds for reporting alleged abuse, which has increased the number of complaints referred to the state Department of Children and Families.

"We're setting the bar high as a state," he said. "And as a consequence, our numbers are high."

Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, or MassKids, said the public is playing a greater role in flagging suspected abuse cases, which is likely another reason for the growing number of allegations.

High-profile cases of abuse — such as the death of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who went missing while under state custody in 2013 and later turned up dead — create a heightened sense of public awareness, she said.

Massachusetts in recent years has expanded the list of individuals required to report abuse, which includes teachers, doctors, nurses and child care workers.

The state is also one of six that doesn't require physical evidence or corroborating reports to launch an investigation of child abuse, Bernier said.

Roughly 95 percent of the nearly 32,000 reported child abuse cases in the federal report dealt with allegations of neglect, while only 9 percent involved physical abuse and 2.4 percent sexual abuse. Children under age 1 were the largest group of abused or neglected children, with 4,198 reported cases.

The federal data only scratch the surface as an estimated 90 percent of child abuse goes unreported, said Bernier.

"The data state by state is different, because the laws are different," she said. "There isn't one consistent definition of child abuse."

Christian Wade is the CNHI state reporter for Massachusetts. Contact him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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