The arrest of an Orem woman on child abuse charges this week, after a tip from a concerned neighbor, points out the role that observant outsiders must play in protecting children.

Physical mistreatment remains a serious problem around the country. An average of three children die each day from abuse.Even when it turns out there is nothing wrong, it is better to report suspected abuse than to look the other way. And social workers have an obligation to investigate and take action, if necessary.

Social workers are being criticized for not getting involved sooner in the Orem case. But there are also those who criticize the Utah Division of Family Services for getting into cases where they shouldn't be, and for being too intrusive.

The state investigates every suspected problem and it should. There is no way to tell what is wrong if anything until a situation is explored.

In 1987, social workers conducted 11,319 investigations, down about a half-percent for the first time in years. Usually there has been a yearly increase of 7 to 10 percent. Those 1987 investigations uncovered 4,976 victims. Not all were physically abused. Many involved neglect.

Social workers aren't sure of the reasons for the drop in reports. But Utahns ought not to pull back simply because of a proposal in the past Legislature about making it a felony to file a false report.

In the first place, the measure didn't pass. Also, a false report would have been made a crime only if it was deliberately made while knowing it was false.

Social workers have a difficult task when they investigate such reports. They must balance between not being too intrusive on one hand, and protecting the child on the other. It often is difficult to determine just where that line is.

A lawsuit being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court may make those kinds of decisions even harder.

A small Wisconsin boy, in the custody of his father, was periodically seen by a social worker, who noticed signs of abuse. But the child was not taken away from the father and eventually suffered brain damage from a beating. Now the mother is suing the county welfare agency for negligence.

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether social welfare agencies can be sued for failing to protect children from their parents.

If it decides they can, social workers will be under even greater pressure in their decision-making. They could be sued for removing a child unnecessarily or for failing to remove a child. A wrong choice could cost state and local governments heavily.

In most instances in Utah, children are not removed from their homes, even where there is a problem. The removal rate is less that 7 percent. The state agency has a good success rate in keeping families together, and preventing further abuse.

Whatever the courts may do, social workers need help from family members, neighbors, teachers, doctors, and others in reporting suspected abuse. The earlier it is detected, the easier it is to repair the damage.