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Society's spotlight on the shadowy world of child abuse has been so revealing that an Idaho survey shows that three of every four adults are alarmed about mistreatment of the young. They also generally feel compelled to combat it.

"The respondents believe abuse can be prevented and they feel a responsibility in seeing it done," said Carolyn Murphy, president of the Idaho Network for Children.But somewhat surprisingly, the newly released study indicates that nearly three out of four adults find spanking a child is acceptable, apparently believing any physical harm from that disciplinary action comes in families other than theirs.

The network and Boise State University sociology professor Martin Scheffer sponsored the statewide telephone survey of 508 people last winter. They say the results are accurate within 4 percentage points.

Conducted by volunteers with the Boise State Social Resource Center, the survey and four other Idaho Network studies on abuse programs in hospitals and communities will help the Governor's Task Force on Children at Risk set a five-year strategy against injury and neglect.

Public awareness of child abuse has increased exponentially since the 1960s, fueled by attention from the media.

But other developments that occurred in the midst of the January survey, such as Gov. Cecil Andrus' report on the wide variance in sentences for convicted child molesters, seemed to have very little effect on survey respondents, reinforcing the impression that abuse already commands the attention of Idahoans.

Seventy-eight percent of the respondents considered child abuse a serious problem. That perception most often was found among women, city dwellers and Roman Catholics. Men, rural residents and members of the LDS Church were less prone to see the problem as urgent.

Slightly more than half of those polled believed child abuse was on the rise. Murphy said 8,121 Idaho cases were reported in fiscal year 1989, which ended last June, compared with 8,134 the year before and 7,679 in fiscal year 1985.

But even with child molestation a hot topic today, most of the Idaho respondents understood abuse more in terms of physical damage than sexual harm.

"I think they consider sexual abuse to be a distinct category," Murphy said.

An anomaly emerged in responses to whether spanking children may be the best choice of punishment for some kinds of behavior. Seventy percent of the respondents agreed with spanking and 31 percent strongly backed it.

But 83 percent worried that physical punishment of a child could lead to injury, with that concern more forceful among women and older people.

Higher levels of education almost always were associated with more sensitivity to child abuse. Another Idaho quirk was that the more schooling the respondents had, the more they seemed to accept physical discipline and were reluctant to support funding for child-abuse prevention programs.

Scheffer said the survey did not permit the reasons for that paradox to be probed, but "one could conclude that apparently people who spank their children must feel that it is other parents whose injudicious use of this form of punishment leads to injury of the child."

"What we don't want them to do is cross that fine line on spanking" into injury, Murphy said. The network suggests discipline methods such as denial of privileges or "time out," letting children cool off in their rooms.