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Studies hint at better ways to head off child abuse. Child abuse is a difficult problem, affecting 1 million American children a year. But studies suggest that screening abuse reports and teaching parents child-rearing skills may help.

New evidence suggests that headway is being made in tackling the difficult problem of child abuse. Early findings of two studies show that parent-education programs and more careful screening of abuse cases could be useful in dealing with the problem. Preliminary findings of a study in Arizona indicate that classes that teach parenting skills may help prevent fathers or mothers who have physically abused their children from doing it again.

In Baltimore, meanwhile, it has been shown that only 16 percent of anonymous phone calls reporting child abuse were actually substantiated. Authors of the Baltimore study suggest that better screening techniques would allow case workers to spend more time on real cases, rather than investigating dead ends.

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While these studies may identify directions for making major improvements in the way American society deals with child abuse, great care should be taken not to draw overly broad conclusions from them at this point, several child-abuse specialists say. The two studies were reported at last week's American Public Welfare Association conference in Washington, D.C., on research, demonstration, and evaluation in the human services.

Nationally some 1 million American children each year are found, upon investigation, to be child-abuse victims. Although most cases involve emotional neglect of some kind, some 30,000 children are found to be the victims of physical abuse, and an additional 70,000 of sexual abuse.

``Ninety-nine percent of all parents want to be good parents,'' including most who abuse their children, says Brenda Watson, a social worker and one of the authors of the Baltimore study of anonymous child-abuse reports. The problem, she says, is teaching them how to help, not abuse, their youngsters.

The results of the Baltimore study were similar to those of an earlier study of New York City's borough of the Bronx. The Baltimore study concludes that a method of screening hot-line calls that makes every effort to get callers to identify themselves ought to be put in place. It also suggests that parent aides might be used to investigate anonymous reports, at least in initial stages.

Both actions are designed to cut down on the amount of time that trained caseworkers spend investigating inaccurate reports of abuse, so that they can spend more time dealing with incidents that turn out to be actual abuse cases. The large number of inaccurate reports, both anonymous and from trained professionals, ``puts a terrific overload'' on the staff members - including investigators - of social agencies, says Barbara Blum, head of the Foundation for Child Development and former New York state welfare commissioner.

The study was made of every report of child abuse in 104 Baltimore census tracts during 1983. It was conducted by Susan J. Zuravin of the Baltimore City Department of Protective Services, Ms. Watson of the School of Social Work and Community Planning of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, and Mark Ehrenschaft of the Grant Center Hospital in Miami.

Preliminary results of the study of 23 Arizona parent-education programs indicates that education ``is a viable intervention approach'' for dealing with abusive parents, says Alan Brown, who conducted the study for Arizona State University. By some measurements, Mr. Brown says, ``the child-abuse potential decreased significantly'' for persons who attended the training sessions. The programs mixed, in the same classes, abusers and nonabusers who require training in parenting.

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Specialists say this study's results should be read with great caution. Brown says follow-up checks have not yet been made on whether any of the abusers who went through these programs have again committed violence against their children. ``But eyeballing it,'' he says, ``it looks as though the changes [in attitudes and behavior] are holding up.''

In addition, new programs specifically intended to prevent adults from committing a first child abuse are being instituted from time to time across the country. In Prince George's County, Md., just outside Washington, a project called ``Preventive Parenting Education and Support Group for High-Risk Families'' began recently. A prime past difficulty in forming such groups has been successfully identifying adults who are likely to abuse their children unless helped. But supervisors involved in the Prince George's County project say they are encouraged by the progress thus far.

Huge needs exist among impoverished families - especially those headed by unmarried, teen-age mothers - of how to be good parents. Often young parents ``don't have the foggiest notion of how to rear a child,'' Dr. Blum says.

Yet American society, notes social scientist Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute, is not particularly interested in providing the money to help young parents learn about parenting. It is, however, willing to finance programs to deal with child abuse. Hence, there has been considerable growth in programs of this sort, which also provide assistance such as emergency housing, in addition to counseling.

Because of these services, says Mr. Besharov, many persons whose work entails dealing with troubled children and families file reports of child abuse which they know cannot be substantiated. The great numbers of these reports - nationally from half to two-thirds of all reports from professionals wind up unsubstantiated - clog the child-abuse system, and result too often in failure to assist victims of actual abuse.

Yet the mere filing of these reports triggers automatic investigations of the family situation, and enables family members, including the children, to obtain social services they otherwise could not get quickly.

``It's a little like bait-and-switch,'' says Besharov. People call about child abuse, but they really want social services. ``The problem is called child abuse, but the problem is not really child abuse'' - it is lack of parenting skills.

This produces a major dilemma. Perhaps the single most important step that could be taken to assist victims of child abuse - and those incorrectly accused of it - would be to screen reports of abuse, so that only the most likely are investigated. (No such screening exists in most parts of the US today: All reports, however dubious, are required to be investigated.)

Yet if such screening were undertaken, Besharov says, many impoverished families who need social services quickly would lose their access to them.

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