Leaders from 70 countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, will gather in New York next week to consider the plight of children throughout the world. Time alone will tell whether the summit produces more than simply platitudes and discussion.

More than talk is needed because the plight of millions of the world's children is appalling, even horrifying. At least 100 million children are expected to die in 1990. Millions more will bear physical and emotional scars from abuse and neglect, illiteracy, substance abuse, crime (as both victim and perpetrator), poverty and malnutrition.For some, the solution may be as simple as providing prenatal care, immunizations and nutritional aid.

In the United States, one in five children lives in poverty - 13 million in all. Utah statistics are also alarming. A just-released study by Utah Children says that in 1989, 82,000 of our children lived in poverty. Almost 45,000 families relied on Aid to Families with Dependent Children and 600 children stayed in the Salt Lake family homeless shelter. An estimated 100,000 children are not covered by health insurance and are not eligible for Medicaid.

As these children age, they have other problems. The report, "Key Facts About Children in Utah," estimates that 20,000 Utah children under age 18 have mental or emotional problems and about 13,000 abuse alcohol or drugs. Only a small percentage receive treatment.

Local schools provide a school nurse for every 8,000 children; nationally there's one nurse to 750 students. Some entire Utah school districts provide only one nurse, period.

More than 1,500 children were placed in shelter care last year in Utah. These children had been abused, neglected, abandoned or placed for dependency, which means that through no fault of the parent the child is without food, shelter or supervision or needs medical or psychological treatment. Child abuse investigations almost doubled from 1982 to 1989, to 12,548.

That's a lot of bad news.

The good news, though, is things can change for children. When lawmakers and policymakers decide that children are a high priority, the impact will be felt in lower crime rates, healthier and happier people and even financial savings.

Last year, the Utah Legislature allocated $300,000 for school projects targeted to at-risk youth. In an effort coordinated with the departments of Education, Human Services and Health, 12 schools have started targeted programs for children in kindergarten through third grade. And they're reporting an improvement in test scores and socialization.

Even in terms of dollars and cents, it pays to care about children. There's no getting away from the fact that programs to improve the lives of children are expensive. But neglected, abused and ailing children grow up to become far more costly in the long run.

Even more fundamentally, there is nothing more precious than a child. Children must not be victims of the society in which they live. They are the future for us all - family, nation, world.