RECENT COMMENTS BY HOUSE Speaker-elect Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., about reopening orphanages for children of broken homes are apparently hitting home this Christmas season.

Based on phone calls to the office of Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., there is evidence that Gingrich's rhetoric struck fear among an often voiceless constituency - children. Consider these notes of phone messages taken by McDermott staffers from mothers on public assistance:- "Daughter did not want to go to school. Afraid that teacher would put her in an orphanage."

- "Daughter was told by classmates that her mother would be thrown in jail."

McDermott, who was a child psychiatrist before entering politics, may be the only member of the House who has ever testified as an expert court witness on child-deprivation cases, treated young abuse victims or had to recommend that children be removed from dangerous environments. Having seen the problems of abused children firsthand, he agrees that children must, as a last resort, be protected from unfit parents even if it means separating mother and child.

Gingrich, however, offers up an absurdly false choice between orphanages and "dumpsters" for unwanted kids, referring to publicized cases of infants who are dumped by parents. Little attention is paid to attacking the root causes of poverty: drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and inner-city unemployment.

"He's (Gingrich) playing with the psychological stability of children and people in poverty," McDermott told us. "I don't mind if you pick on adults because they can take care of themselves. When you pick on kids for political gain you are scraping."

A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that more than 5 million children would be denied welfare benefits if the Republican "Contract With America" is enacted.

"While many parents may ultimately be forced to relinquish their children on either a temporary or permanent basis, it is also important to recognize that parents could frequently take extreme measures to keep their families together," the report says. "Some may move to dangerous, or more dangerous, neighborhoods to save on rent. Food budgets might be cut back. . . . Some mothers might be forced to rely on an abusive boyfriend for help in meeting their children's basic needs."

Orphanage opponents also point out that keeping children at home is far more cost-effective than orphanages. Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., notes that the average combined AFDC and food stamp benefit for a family of three is $661 per month. But the average residential treatment facility for a child removed from a home runs about $100 per day - or about $3,000 per month.