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The "growth" of child abuse is partially a reflection of tightening community standards, according to a leading authority on the subject.

"Child abuse is an ethical judgment we make about the standards of care. As we have raised the standards of care, we get more abuse," said James Garbarino, president of the Erickson Institute in Chicago for Advanced Study in Child Development.Garbarino, keynote speaker at the Utah Conference on Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, used the example of his native Illinois, where "50 percent of the parents are engaging in illegal neglect of children" because they do not use child restraints or seatbelts in vehicles.

"The amount of actual neglect has increased because we have raised the standard of care but haven't gotten all of the people up to the standard," he said. Twenty-five years ago, when children sat on laps or stood on the back seat, the parent wasn't guilty of neglect, because there was no law governing that.

"Not all of the good we do leads to child abuse prevention," he said, "although it can improve life for some children. Many programs enhance the function of basically well-meaning parents but don't always reach those at risk. If we enhance the parenting of 25 percent, that's a good thing, but it doesn't help the other 75."

Studies of sexual abuse protection programs for pre-school children seem to have little positive effect, he said, and maybe some negative side effects. Very young children are more apt to interpret photographs of "benign" touching as bad or frightening.

Measuring child abuse programs is also difficult in another way. In a study of two-parent families several years ago, 36 of 1,000 participants admitted to severe violence against children. Recently, the figure dropped to 19 of 1,000. Does that mean violence is decreasing?

"It could be one of two things," according to Garbarino. "There may be an actual decrease of violence. Or maybe just a growing recognition on the part of parents that it's not appropriate to admit to this behavior."

He told advocates not to be discouraged. Programs to prevent child abuse are gaining ground in one major area. In 1975, only 10 percent of the people thought abuse was a major problem, while 90 percent now recognize it as one.

The secret to making real prog-ress, he said, is to recognize the cultural and even sociobiological features that may promote abuse.

"It's too easy to go for politically easy solutions because we don't want to deal with sociological factors," he said.