SOCIAL WORKERS in the suburban counties surrounding this city report an alarming rise in the number of child abuse and neglect cases coming to their attention. We're not talking about pornography rings or kidnappers, but cases where parents are mistreating their own children. It is estimated that about half these situations involve drug-abusing parents who are so tuned-out that they ignore small children for days at a time, or so hyped-up that they become violent with defenseless children whose normal behavior irritates or distracts the otherwise occupied adults. The economic downturn has also increased stress on families, and, it is said, even some well-intentioned parents -- plagued by worries about job security, overburdened schedules, child care problems and tight household budgets -- take it out on the kids.

While caseloads are increasing, though, governments are facing money problems at every level. In the counties there is pressure to cut back on social services of all kinds, even those directed at protecting children and helping abusive parents change their ways. In Prince William County, to cite one example, the child abuse and neglect caseload is up 66 percent in three years, but money is so limited that the unit specializing in this work may be eliminated. A decision of that kind seems terribly shortsighted and a true deformation of values. Local governments across the country are facing terrible choices, and it's safe to assume that groups that are well organized and represent large numbers of citizens will get a hearing. But of all the claimants on a county's resources, abused and neglected children are perhaps the most needy and, at the same time, the least able to make their own case for assistance.

None of the cuts that are going to be made in government services will be easy. Road repair may have to wait. Education will feel the pinch. And health services, already underfunded, will be pressed again. But there is no room for compromise in the case of threatened children, no way to postpone help or reduce the government's role without abandoning its responsibility. A civilized society protects the weakest and most vulnerable of its members, as it has so often been said. Addressing the needs of abused and neglected children must continue to be a high priority for local officials.