CHILD ABUSE STORIES keep repeating themselves: A 3-year-old child is beaten to death. The mother's boyfriend is charged. It hits the papers. Just a few paragraphs. Somewhere in the stories is the inevitable phrase in which officials refuse to discuss various aspects of the case, citing confidentiality of case involving children.

If you're a reporter and you dig a little you find that what appears to the public to be a new child abuse case isn't new at all to authorities. Social workers and police and courts have known the family. There was a pattern of violence that no one was able to break. Maybe the child had been removed from the home and later returned by the court. Then he's beaten again and removed again. There's a file growing on him in some county or city welfare office. Social workers know him and maybe they know things aren't so good in the home but it's only a suspicion and you don't take kids away from their parents on grounds of suspicion. Then the child is found dead. Now, in the jargon of government, this has become a police matter.And it becomes a public matter. Someone, after all, is dead.

This is where the reporter comes in, asking questions: Was the child ever hurt before? Were social workers supposed to be watching the family? Who decided to send him back? Or was the home? Was the child ever removed from the family? Who decided to send him back? Or was the child being tortured for three pitiable years without the the police or social agencies finding out and doing something about it? You ask questions of police and they say they don't know. Or if they know, they say it's confidential. So you go to the social services department. Did the social workers know the family? They can't answer. That's confidential. But the child is dead. Sorry, it's confidential.

But you persist and finally someone tells you a fact, and then another fact, and you promise to protect them as a source, and they tell you more. The child had been taken away from his mother twice, only to be returned by the courts. Then you try to talk to the judge. Give him a fair shake. Why did he return the child? He can't discuss the matter. It's confidential.

You are up against the proverbial wall. A child is dead and it's being handled like a state secret. Various authorities either made, or did not make, decisions that affected the child's fate, that may have mortally imperiled him, and yet what they did or did not do was done in secret. It's confidential in order to protect the authorities. These are, after all, tricky cases. Judgment calls. People will make mistakes. So the police know what happened, the social workers know, and the judges know, but the public doesn't. These people made decisions, and ultimately someone died, and no one can be held accountable. They are immune from public scrutiny.

Confidentiality, of course, is a relative thing. Court and social service records on juveniles are confidential in the District of Columbia, but reporters can generally find out the details of a case. The authorities may ask you to use a pseudonym if the child is alive to protect his identity, but you can find out enough to tell people whether the process designed to protect children from family violence is working or not. There are mechanisms, in other words, for newspapers to inform the public about the effectiveness of public officials and public processes without infringing on the privacy of specific families.

But now comes word out of Prince William County that confidentiality is not relative any more. It's obsolute. The social services department is refusing to share its information, not only with newspapers, but with the police department and the commonwealth's attorney.He, in turn, is subpeonaing records and the social services department is suing him, asking the court to declare welfare department files "completely immune to disclosure."

Social services director Ricardo Perez says the county attorney is interpreting the Virginia code to mean no information can be released and the commonwealth's attorney, acting on behalf of the police, is arguing that the code allows the sharing of information.

The issue is whether or not the police department shall have access to the department's records upon demand," says Perez. "If they do, that means when my staff discusses a particular problem with a family, then the police can come in and get it. This means we become an arm of the law enforcement in the county and I don't think that's our role.

"If I go out to somebody and say, 'We've had a report you're abusing your child," and the individual says, 'Yes, I've been under a lot of pressure lately: I did smack him harder than I intended,' we say, 'We'd like to work with you on this problem.' . . . (If it becomes) common community knowledge that police have access to our records, then people will be less inclined to share the information honestly. When we go in there we're clearly not in there to investigate a crime. We're in there to investigate the situation and to assist the family in any problem that they have."

There was a story in Monday's paper about one child abuse case the department handled. The child's name was Rodney Williams. He was removed from his home by social service workers after numerous reports that he was being beaten. Then, he was returned to his home. He died on Sept. 10 from what police called "severe beatings."

Does Perez know who returned the boy to his home? Why? "I know, but if I'm not going to tell the police I'm certainly going to tell the newspapers. That information is not to be released to anybody."

But the child is dead. "I don't think there's any provision within the code that says the kid's dead, you can release the information you have."

There you have it. A child is dead, which surely suggests someone made an error in judgment. Maybe it was a social worker, maybe it was a judge, or maybe there was just something wrong with the system that wasn't vigilant enough. The people in Prince William County aren't going to be able to find out what went wrong, though.

That's confidential.