In the past decade, and especially in recent months because of the slumping economy, adults in Howard County are increasingly taking their frustrations out on the most vulnerable people within reach: children.

Reports of child sexual and physical abuse in Howard rose from 356 in 1988 to 523 in 1989, state officials say -- a 46 percent jump. Statewide during the same period, the increase was 12 percent.

Reported abuse surged much more dramatically in Howard than in the rest of the state during the 1980s. Reports of physical or sexual abuse of children doubled in Maryland between 1979 and 1988, but increased tenfold in Howard during the same period. Reported child abuse has increased steadily since 1979, when 34 cases were reported in Howard.

Lately, reports of family violence against children have leapt again, a phenomenon that caseworkers and therapists attribute, in large part, to the stresses on parents burdened by money and job troubles.

"With the recession, we have an increasing number of couples walking in whose whole families are just stressed to the breaking point," said Fran Price, executive director of Citizens Against Spousal Assault of Howard County.

Although that group's clients initially come in because of spousal abuse, children also are being victimized in about half those cases. "Domestic violece is a learned behavior, a family pattern," Price said.

Other agencies report the same phenomenon. A youth-oriented crisis hot line has received calls from 23 teenagers reporting physical or sexual abuse since the service was offered in August by the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia.

After a lull while children were away for summer vacation, state caseworkers say, reports of abuse are up again.

"Any time there is pervasive fear and anxiety in the population it takes a toll," said Carl Smith, supervisor of intake for Child Protective Services in Howard County, a division of the state Department of Human Resources.

"A number of families are experiencing a forced alteration of lifestyle and expectations -- and that's stressful," he said.

"We've seen greater severity in the types of abuse," said Zena Rudo, of the Baltimore-based Child Abuse Prevention Center, whose counselors work with child-abuse cases in Baltimore and surrounding jurisdictions. "And as the economy goes into recession, we are seeing much more stress and work-releated anxiety."

At the same time, public and private agencies that investigate these cases and offer counseling and preventive programs are more short-staffed than usual because of recession-related cuts.

Because of the hiring freeze ordered this year by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Child Protective Services in Howard is operating without one of the six caseworkers usually on staff.

"With the budget cuts and the recession, we are inundated with clients, just swamped," Price said.

Social workers say it is difficult to know for sure why Howard has experienced a surge in reported abuse, and stress that it may be too early to attribute it to the economy.

Any increase in apparent levels of abuse is attributed, to some degree, to a greater tendency on the part of schools, neighbors and social workers to report abuse.

"We're just getting smarter at identifying things that have been going on for centuries, said Lisa Goshen, executive director of the Howard County Sexual Assault Center.

"A lot of training gets passed on to school personnel, which is in turn passed on to kids," Smith said. "Kids are more aggressive these days. They're not as likely to sit and take it. They report it."

Although rapidly suburbanizing Howard is the second-richest county in Maryland, caseworkers say child abuse is not confined to any socio-economic group, though it may hide better among wealthy families, who go to private practitioners rather than public clinics and agencies.

Along with continued vigilance and preventative programs in the schools, Smith said, parenting groups are one of the best ways to prevent abuse. Child Protective Services has obtained some grant money to set up such groups, and other agencies in the county are begining to offer them. "A lot more could be done in this county, given that it's so chock-full of social workers and therapists," he said. Smith said his office also is seeking money for a physician who could help document abuse.

"We estimate, for every one case that's reported," Rudo said, "there are four more that never surface."