At first the 3-year-old girl seemed willing to talk about the incident. She did not know the anatomical words, but a neighbor, the child said, had done awful things with her body. She told her mother, she repeated it to police and then she told prosecutors.

But two weeks ago, when a judge began questioning her in a Richmond courtroom, she threw her arms over her face and refused to tell it again. The charges against the neighbor were dropped.

Hours later, her mother, eyes brimming with tears and voice quivering with anger, stood before a Virginia Senate committee considering a law that would have allowed her daughter's testimony to be videotaped for courtroom use.

"For a 3-year-old there's definite trauma; she just clammed up once she got in the courtroom," said the mother, a 20-year-old nursery school teacher. "There wasn't anything that could be done without her testimony. Maybe a videotape could have stood in the way of the next child being abused."

It was the kind of wrenching account that has tugged at emotions in hearing after hearing in Richmond, as well as in other state capitals, as legislators deal with what has become the most sensitive social issue of their 1985 sessions -- child abuse and children's rights.

"Last year was the Year of the Chesapeake Bay; this is the Year of the Child," said Maryland Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad (D-Anne Arundel), cochairman of a gubernatorial task force on child abuse and neglect.

Sparked by a national rash of child sex scandals and bombardment by television docudramas, the lawmakers are moving to join the movement to impose sweeping new protections for children. In Richmond, such legislation has replaced the antidrunk driving efforts of past years as the most politically popular issue of the 1985 season. In Annapolis, Gov. Harry Hughes is pressing for the enacting of a $12 million package of new programs to help children.

"The public awareness has created a demand for attention," said Donald Bross, executive director of the National Association of Counsel for Children. "The simple explanation is there's an unbelievable amount of harm to children that people have never been aware of . . . . Now people are suddenly fascinated."

Legislators in Virginia and Maryland are considering laws giving children's testimony more legal weight in the courts and allowing use of videotapes of children's statements in criminal trials. They are weighing bills requiring criminal record checks of people who work with children in positions ranging from schoolteachers to Boy Scout leaders.

They have introduced laws giving courts new powers to protect children from accused sexual abusers and to impose tougher penalties on those convicted of child sex abuse.

Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb and Maryland's Hughes have placed high priorities on children's issues in their legislative packages, boosting chances for enactment of many of the proposals.

Most of the recommendations have followed more than year of intensive study by lawmakers in both states.

Some lawyers and civil rights activists fear that legislators may trample important constitutional rights in their zest to offer broad protections for children.

"It's a popular issue," said Del. W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., a Democratic attorney from Virginia's Northern Neck. "You can't oppose it without seeming to be indifferent to the needs of the less fortunate. But it raises very serious questions regarding the rights of defendants. It becomes very unpopular to look to see if we're going so far to protect children to the point of overlooking the fact the accused also has certain rights."

"You just can't assume that every charge of child abuse is true," said Judy Goldberg, Virginia representative of the American Civil Liberties Union. She cites a recent report that more than 71 percent of all the allegations of child abuse received through a state hot line last year were eventually categorized as "unfounded."

Proponents of the changes discount those objections, saying existing laws have long been insensitive to the special sophistication needed to deal with crimes involving children.

Many Virginia courts refuse to accept testimony from children under the ages of 5 or 6. And even when courts do allow small children to testify, the youngsters frequently are unable to enunciate the details.

"Sometimes they're frightened by the courtroom with judges in black robes and burly men with guns," said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), who is sponsoring a measure that would allow children's testimony to be videotaped and introduced as evidence during a trial. Children are intimidated even more when they walk into a courtroom and see the alleged abuser sitting only a few rows away, said Gartlan.

He points to cases such as the one involving the 3-year-old child whose mother recently described the traumatic courtroom scene to senators. It was the second time charges had been dropped against the man because the youngster he allegedly abused could not testify against him in court. In addition to the 3-year-old, he was charged with molesting his own daughter, Richmond prosecutors said.

"When you're dealing with really young kids, it videotaping would cut down a lot of the trauma," said Fairfax County Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Corinne J. Magee.

Opponents argue that videotaping could make it even tougher for a judge or jury to discern whether the young child is telling the truth. They say they fear that the person selected to interview the child could slant questions and skew the testimony.

"I would never use it," said Gerald Gray, a prosecutor in Virginia's Dickenson County. "The potential for abuse is too great."

One of the most controversial proposals under consideration in both the Maryland and Virginia legislatures would require criminal background checks of people who work with children. Some versions of the proposed Virginia law would extend the requirements to scout leaders and other youth organization volunteers. Others limit the checks to full-time employes of licensed day care facilities. Still other proposals would subject schoolteachers to criminal record checks.

Virginia lawmakers also are delving into the civil proedures involving domestic child abuse. In family situations, current law allows judges to order a child out of the house where the child abuse allegedly occurred. A law proposed by Fairfax County legislators would allow the judge to order the alleged abuser out of the home.

"The child, who is the victim, gets victimized again when he is taken out of the house," said Doreen Williams, a Fairfax County attorney who handles child abuse cases.

Despite this year's surge of interest in legislation aimed at helping children, some observers say they are concerned that it could become little more than a passing political fad.

"Even with all this attention, there's no natural interest groups pushing children's legislation," said national children's issues expert Bross. "We see examples of people quite willing to shut the door, eager to think the problem is not of the dimensions it appears to be."