WHEN 36 MARYLAND children die from abuse in one year -- 50 percent more than in the previous year -- authorities should be jolted into action. That's three children a month. When about half of the reports made to the state's Department of Human Resources go uninvestigated, that's a chilling invitation for still worse death tolls until Maryland moves to improve its procedures. And when the state child welfare workers' rate of finding possible abuse or neglect has dropped well below the national average -- while national studies and local anecdotal evidence all point to a dramatic increase in child abuse -- you have to wonder whether overburdened, inadequately trained workers are finding abuse in fewer cases simply because they cannot handle any more. Clearly too much is falling through the cracks -- and the state had better find out why and fix it.

These alarming findings are contained in a report from Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit group based in Baltimore. Matthew Joseph, director of policy for the organization, says the dramatic increase in child abuse deaths "is not a statistical quirk" but an indication of "a devastating situation in which the system is overloaded."

The response from state officials? Changes called for by the legislature have improved their ability to identify abuse and neglect, they say, which can result in statistics showing an apparent rise in fatalities. In addition, in 21 of the 36 cases, officials say, the children and their families had not been involved with social service agencies before they died.

But the number of investigations in Maryland has gone up only slightly -- 129 more cases in 1999 than in 1998. Can it be that the department has hit capacity? Workers' caseloads vary among the state's jurisdictions, but the Advocates for Children and Youth study says caseworkers have reported having as many as 34 children to monitor. State officials say they need to wait for results of a pilot caseload-reduction program in three counties before making statewide changes.

How much longer? Some $15 million to $17 million was earmarked last year in the budget to hire more caseworkers. Gov. Glendening should move beyond pilot programs and put those funds to work.

The study recommends that state officials issue a report for the legislature listing reasons for the 50 percent increase in child abuse deaths, along with an assessment of how these deaths might have been avoided. In addition, more accurate, detailed reports on child abuse cases ought to be made. Legislative hearings and action are in order as well during the session that begins Wednesday. The system -- the children -- need help right away.