WE REGULARLY READ chilling accounts of child abuse -- reports of neglect, battering, torture and killing of helpless children by their parents or other adults. But what we do not read -- and what authorities withhold from each other about the cases -- may be just as alarming, as columnist Judy Mann noted so forcefully in the Metro section Wednesday. Under a headline, "Shh! A Child Is Dead, But It's Confidential," the column cited a short newspaper item about a 3-year-old beaten to death and the mother's boyfriend's having been charged in the case. A reporter asks pertinent questions: "Was the child ever hurt before? Were social workers supposed to be watching the family? When did the last social worker visit the home? Was the child ever removed from the family? Who decided to send him back? Or was the child being tortured for three pitiable years without the police or social agencies finding out and doing something about it?"

The police say they don't know -- or if they do, they say it's confidential. The social workers say they can't answer because it's confidential. In Prince William County, the social-services department is refusing to share information not only with newspapers, but also with the police and the commonwealth's attorney. There is the case of Rodney Williams, who died on Sept. 10 from what police described as "severe beatings." He had been removed from his home by socialservice workers after many reports that he was being beaten. Yet now no official will say who returned the boy to his home.

How is the public or any concerned authority to deal effectively with child-abuse cases when no one will say anything or share any useful information? Of course, confidentiality is important -- but there are ways of protecting people without withholding pertinent information. Indeed, the more successful programs to curb child abuse depend on precisely this kind of shared information, with group approaches to cases that combine the talents of professional experts in all aspects of such problems -- psychologists, nurses, social workers, attorneys, teachers, police and so on. These groups can review cases quickly and decide what measures might help resolve conditions contributing to each case.

So if laws or regulations need changing in Prince William County or in Richmond to ensure access and sharing of child-abuse records, the changes should be made -- and quickly. The measures to deal with child abuse are inadequate enough without making every case a state secret.