One of the most vexing problems for social agencies that deal with troubled children is deciding what action will most help children who have been physically but not sexually abused. In some instances, circumstances dictate that such children should be immediately removed from their homes and put in foster care.
Yet in many others, experts say, the best interests of children are served in the long run by letting them remain in their homes, provided that the problems of the parents that led to the abuse are alleviated - and presuming that the abuse is not repeated.
But are programs meant to correct such problems effective enough to justify leaving abused children at home or placing them back in their homes after a relatively short time?
New evidence indicates that they may be. Preliminary results of a study in Maryland this year of 350 families and their 838 children show that sufficient success has been achieved in alleviating family problems, generally within 90 days, so that the children can safely be left living with their parents.
In the Maryland study, which is continuing, only two of the 838 children have had to be removed from their families and sent to foster care.
Results of the study thus far are particularly welcome inasmuch as the foster-care system, nationally, is in difficulty. For several years the number of children in foster care decreased, from an estimated half-million children in 1977 to about 269,000 in 1983. This drop paralleled a decline in the number of children who were born in the US.
Now the number of American children requiring foster care apparently is again on the rise, though only modestly. In 1984 the number increased by 7,000, and localized reports tell of a continued modest rise since then. In many parts of the country there are too few individual foster homes and institutions to handle the increase.
Many foster families give their young charges copious amounts of love and firm guidance in very difficult circumstances. But conditions in all too many foster homes are so bad that only as a last resort will some judges put troubled youngsters into the foster-care system.
Hearings this fall by the US House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, documented substantial problems in foster-care systems around the nation. Thus, the results of the Maryland study on foster-care prevention are particularly welcome.
Carol Pearson of the Maryland Social Services Administration says that the program was built on offering ``intensive, in-home services'' to serve ``the children most at risk.''
Dr. Pearson says the prevention program features low caseloads - one social worker for every six families - and social workers who come to families' homes and provide their services, initially in person, later sometimes by phone.
What is needed most often, based on this program, is individual counseling. Also frequently required of social workers is family counseling, training in parenting skills, and helping to transport the family.
In addition, Pearson told a recent workshop meeting of the American Public Welfare Association conference, the program has an important emergency spending fund that can be tapped to provide immediately for a family's urgent financial requirements: ``flexible dollars,'' she calls it.
Thus far it has been used most often to provide troubled and impoverished families with furniture, household necessities, clothing, and rent.
These ideas are not startling. Experts have been saying all along that prompt assistance from trained social-service workers can have a major, positive impact on troubled families. Yet providing such help is expensive. But many specialists hold that in this case short-run expense leads to long-run savings.
This fall child advocate Diane Weinroth told the House subcommittee, chaired by Rep. George Miller (D) of California, that it costs taxpayers some $8,200 a year to support a child in a foster-care home in the District of Columbia. It costs as much as 10 times that amount if the child is institutionalized, depending on the requirements of the child.
Ms. Weinroth is a member of the steering committee of the child advocacy and protection committee of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia.
The sums she cited are spent keeping family and child apart, child experts note, yet far less is spent on support projects across the country like the Maryland program, which try to keep them together.