A Columbia, Md., man was indicted by a Howard County grand jury today on charges of sexually abusing a 3-year-old girl, and the prosecutor handling the case said he intends to call the child to testify in court.

While few children as young as three have been witnesses in the past, Maryland prosecutors say increased publicity about sexual abuse of children is bringing more of those cases to court. A Baltimore prosecutor said yesterday that she is currently preparing 3- and 4-year-olds to testify in cases she is handling.

In Maryland, children under age seven must be "qualified" by a judge before they can testify, with the judge attempting to determine whether they can distinguish truth from lie and understand the oath by which they are sworn.

The defendant in the Howard case, James Green Jr., 47, of 8710 Areybrink La., was indicted on one count each of second- and third-degree sex offense and assault and battery. He could not be reached for comment today, but prosecutors said he has denied the charges.

According to court records and the county prosecutor's office, Green allegedly approached the girl while she was playing near her family's apartment complex with a 5-year-old friend. The younger girl was then coaxed into a wooded area, where the alleged offense took place, records say.

The child later told her grandmother, a nurse, about the incident and pointed Green out as the assailant. The 5-year-old playmate also identified Green, deputy State's Attorney Dwight Thompson said.

Green was arrested last month after the child's mother filed a complaint with the Howard County police.

Thompson said today that the decision to take the case before the grand jury was one of the most difficult he has had to make as a prosecutor. Taking the case on to a courtroom "poses tremendous problems," he said. "However, I'm not about to step back from it either. We'll just have to talk to her parents and do the best we can."

Child abuse experts say the same dilemma is increasingly confronting local prosecutors as growing national publicity about child abuse prompts more parents and others to report suspected cases to the police for prosecution.

In many cases, they say, the only witness is the victim, who may be as young as two.

"We have this problem constantly. It's an everyday problem," said Olga Bruning, chief of the Sex Offense Unit of the Baltimore City State's Attorney's office. "If you have a 2-year-old, you can forget about it. The man walks away. It's a nightmare with these cases."

"Often the younger the child the more difficult it is to insure the child's competence to testify. Even when a child is eight or nine it's not unusual for their competency to be challenged," said Dr. Carl Rogers, associate director of the Division of Child Protection at Children's Hospital.

Age, however, is not the key factor in deciding to prosecute child-abuse cases, he said.

"The successs or degree of difficulty [of a case] depends on the use of their testimony, how complex the case is and the ability of a child to articulate or relate the facts," Rogers said.

"Two 2-year-olds or two 5-year-olds can experience the same event and not be able to describe it in the same way or in the same detail."

As a result, some prosecutors have been able to put young children on the stand after familiarizing them with the court process.

"You can develop their response tremendously," said Baltimore prosecutor Bruning, who also has cases pending with three- and four-year-old victims. Said she said she wasn't sure if they would testify, but said she was preparing them to do so.