PARENTS teach their children to beware the stranger in the car or lingering outside the schoolyard. Sound advice. Yet a closer threat lurks for many children - parents themselves.
The case of Susan Smith - the South Carolina mother charged with drowning her two young sons before claiming that they were kidnapped - has exposed skewed public perceptions about child abuse, experts say.
The fact is, a child is far more likely to be murdered by a parent than to be abducted and killed by a stranger.
``I think it's too hard for people to look at this [horrifying truth],'' says Ann Cohn Donnelly, executive director of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse in Chicago.
Nearly 3 million children were reported victims of child abuse and neglect in the US last year, a 2.5 percent increase from 1992. A recent Department of Justice study of homicides involving children under 12 in the nation's largest cities found that in 57 percent of 8,072 cases, parents were charged with murder.
@bodytext-noindent = `OVER the last decade approximately 350 children were abducted by strangers and killed,'' Ms. Donnelly says. ``In contrast, 1,299 children died due to abuse and neglect by their own parents last year alone.''
Estimates of how many child abductions occur each year vary widely, but the vast majority are carried out by a relative in a custody dispute. Each year, between 3,200 and 4,600 nonfamily abductions occur, according to the Department of Justice, while approximately 163,000 children are snatched in custody disputes.
``[Abductions by strangers] are serious and it would be a disservice if we said there is no risk outside the home,'' says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va. ``But children are more likely to die from abuse in their homes than to be abducted and murdered by strangers.''
Prevention advocate Donnelly says the Smith case is a wakeup call. Understaffed state child-welfare agencies are increasingly unable to respond to suspected abuse because of cutbacks in state and federal aid.
``We've developed a tremendous database on how to prevent child abuse over the last two decades, but we're not using it,'' she says. ``I'm sure there were signs [in the Smith case] and I'm convinced that it could have been prevented.''