The young girl sat alone in one of the back rows. Later, when the crowd had left, she approached the speaker. "Is it true," she asked, hesitating, "that if you were abused as a child you will be a child abuser?"
"If it is," said the 16-year-old girl, after recounting a grisly tale of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her father and brother, "I think that I already am."
The young girl, said speaker Diane Broadhurst, an education specialist who works with child protection groups in Montgomery County, admitted that she has slammed one baby against the wall while babysitting and slapped another until it stopped crying.
"Please help me," she pleaded.
The pattern of the abused child who becomes the abusive adult was one of many topics last week at a child abuse and neglect conference sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The conference, sponsors said, provided a forum for educational, medical and social welfare workers to discuss way to coordinate child protection services.
Panel members warned that reports of child abuse and neglect are on the rise. In 1974, according to the American Humane Society, 400,000 cases were reported across the nation. In 1978, more than 600,000 complaints weree filed.
The Washington area, audience members were told, is particularly vulnerable to the conditions conducive to child abuse and neglect. High divorce rates, a transient society and large pockets of poverty create a stressful and unstable environment that can lead to quick outbursts of violence.
In Montgomery County, 801 reports of abuse and neglect were filed in 1979, according to Child Portection Service records. Prince George's County officials last year recorded nearly 1,400 cases of abuse and neglect.
In other metropolitan areas figures were also high. District of Columbia officials said that 4,864 incidents were reported in 1979, invovling 2,683 families. In Arlington, 1,306 children -- from 568 families -- suffered some form of abuse and neglect between July 1, 1979, and June 30, 1980. And in Fairfax County, officials said 1,768 cases for abuse and neglect were filed between July 1, 1978, and June 30, 1979.
These figures, however, represent only a fraction of the actual incidents, speakers were quick to add.
Nearly half of the cases of abuse or neglect remain undetected, said Dr. Frederick Green, associate director at Children's Hospital, because doctors in private practice rarely report abuse that may come to their attention. Consequently, nearly 95 percent of the recorded cases are reported by public hospital officials.
Child abuse and neglect, Green stresed, is a problem transcending all economic and racial boundaries.
"The difference between the rich and the poor," Green said, "is that the rich can afford private care."
The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect estimated that more than one million children are physically -- including sexually -- abused or neglected each year. Two thousand chidren, the report predicts, will die this year from injuries inflicted by an adult.
In addition said Green, a study of emergency room patients shows 10 percent of all children treated are victims of abuse and more than 30 percent of all fractures in children are incurred at the hands of an adult.
Unless action is taken soon, said keynote speaker Dr. Anne Cohn, special assistant to the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, "an already insidious and pervasive problem will become worse."
Child abuse and neglect, speakers said, can be broadly defined as the willful harm or threat of harm to children under 18 by the acts or omissions of their parents or guardians. In most states, said Vanette Graham, director of the Child Abuse and Neglect Resource Center, any person who works with children is required to report suspected cases.
Private doctors, Green said, ignore the law because they fear being drawn into court to testify. Testifying in child abuse cases, Green said, is a long and arduous process which encroaches upon lucrative practice time and sometimes alienates patients.
Green said while no definitive character chart of a child-abuser exists, certain traits surface more frequently than others. Included in that list are parents who were abused as children, young parents and parents undergoing a stressful period. Handicapped children and youngsters who resemble a person disliked by their parents or guardians appear to be more vulnerable than other youngsters, Green said.
One of the major problems in preventing child abuse, said Isadora Hare, project manager of the National Professional Resource Center on Abuse and Neglect, lies in defining acceptable norms of physical discipline. What may be regarded as a violent display of anger by one parent, could be merely a slap to another parent.
Historically, Hare said, different standards of acceptability have existed for acts committed outside the home and those performed inside it. While most adults would not hit a child who is not part of the family, Hare said, many of the same adults consider it their right to discipline their children in whatever manner they deem appropriate, including physical punishment.
An adherence to the 17th century adage, "Spare the rod and spoil the child," has resulted in the "alarming conclusion that violence between parent and the child is not a rare phenomenon in the United States but rather a pattern of parent-child relationships in American families," Hare said.
The public view seems to be, she said, that "it's all right to hit your child, but not too hard -- that, in fact it's all right to hurt your child, but not too badly."
Quoting from a 1975 study by sociologist Murray Straus and Richard Gelles, Hare said that between 84 and 97 percent of all American parents use physical punishment at some point in a child's life. According to the study, Hare continued, 3 1/2 million children have been kicked, bitten or punched by their parents at some time during their lives; 2 million have been beaten, and between 1 and 1 1/2 million children have faced parents wielding a gun or knife.
Discipline is a necessary part of raising children, Hare said, but added, "whether we wish to do this with violence is something we need to weigh very carefully."
"Is this how we want to raise our children?" she asked. "Do we want to teach them that violecne is an acceptable way of settling disputes or of putting a point across?
"As long as we as a society condone corporal punishment of children, we must admit that we are also willing to place some children in danger of being hurt badly," Hare continued. "In a very real sense, all parents are at risk of crossing the threshold into "child abuse.'"