The 1980s were a "terrible decade for children," with clear deterioration from 1980 to 1988 in their social and economic condition, and nowhere were the effects more pronounced than in the District of Columbia, according to a national study released yesterday.

"This country fell behind or stalled on six key indicators of child well-being," said Judith Weitz, coordinator of a project called "Kids Count."

Sponsored by the nonprofit Center for the Study of Social Policy, the study measured the social and economic conditions of children under 18 for each state and the District, which ranked last.

Nationally, there were substantial increases in the percentage of children in poverty, juveniles who are incarcerated, out-of-wedlock births and teen violent deaths. There was also an increase, though smaller, in the percentage of babies born at low birth weights, which leads to physical and mental impairments and sometimes death.

The only improvements were in child death rates, infant mortality rates and the percent graduating from high school.

Vermont's composite score was the best in the country, and the District's the worst. Virginia ranked 22nd, and Maryland 33rd.

The District's statistics in five categories -- low birth weight, infant mortality, teen violent deaths, teen out-of-wedlock births and juvenile incarceration -- were all the worst in the country, and it also did poorly on child poverty, child death rates and high school graduation rates. It did show improvement on four of the eight measures since 1980.

The findings were no surprise to several health professionals familiar with the District, and they and officials who conducted the study said it is difficult to compare the problems of a single large city with a state composed of urban, suburban and rural communities.

The District "is the only entity there that is 75 percent black or brown -- and the District mirrors precisely the status of people of color, with respect to health care, across the nation," said Dr. Reed Tuckson, the District's commissioner of public health from 1986 to 1990. "It's a tragedy."

"If we want to solve these problems, we must decide to make children our number one priority and do all that that means -- rebuilding the community infrastructure, take time to listen to our children and spend time teaching our children," said Tuckson, now a senior vice president with the March of Dimes.

Olati Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Children's Defense Fund, has been analyzing the quality of District's social services and agreed, although she added the report points out problems "particular to the District."

"I think the District has some problem implementing programs even when it has the best intentions," she said, referring to shortfalls in public health clinics, housing and foster care. "Lots of things D.C. says it's going to do it doesn't because of staffing shortage or freezes."

Johnson said her analysis showed that often the District has not taken advantage of federal funds available for such care, and as a result, "we don't have the basic systems in place to answer to these problems."

"I am very alarmed by the report," D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon said through a spokesman. "It's obvious the District has failed to hear the cries of our children. The children have been disgarded and they are now paying the price for it. I will do all I can to change it."

The study did not have racial breakdowns for all categories but clearly showed that white children are better off than black or Hispanic children. For example, 15.4 percent of white children were below the government's official poverty line from 1985 to 1989; the figure for blacks was 43.8 percent and for Hispanics 38.2 percent.

Weitz said one of the reasons for the declines in many states during the 1980s was that the levels of support in the state Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program (AFDC), the major welfare program for low-income families, "have significantly decreased. The U.S. average of the sum of AFDC and food stamp benefits for a family of four was 66.3 percent of the established poverty line in 1988, down from 70.9 percent in 1980."

Weitz said the recession of the early 1980s sharply cut incomes for a substantial number of families, some of whom had never fully recovered.

"While we had pieces of progress in some of the states addressing the needs of children, we did not have a substantial child-investment agenda," she said. "In Washington, it was considered a victory for child-advocates if they stopped program cuts. As a result, welfare, medical and special food aid, as well as preventive health services and education programs did not increase fast enough to reduce distress among the poor."

Staff writer Mary Ann French contributed to this report.