Prodded by cries for help from overloaded state agencies, Congress is starting to take a look at revamping the entire federal-state child welfare system. While this could cost billions more in a federal budget that needs to be reduced instead of expanded, the problem is too critical too ignore.

Consider the following from Congressional Quarterly:- Abuse and neglect of children are growing, up 10 percent in 1989 and up 147 percent over a decade. An appalling 2.4 million children were reported abused or neglected in one year. In Utah, substantiated cases in 1990 showed a 9.5 percent rise. Less than half of the 8,924 cases received any treatment.

- Simple, basic care is no longer enough, although it is still badly needed. Not only are the numbers greater, but the problems are more serious, requiring more intensive help.

- State agencies, which carry out child welfare programs, are swamped. In some urban centers with huge problems, caseloads might be from 100 to 200 per social worker. In Utah it ranges between 25 and 30. The maximum caseload recommended by the Child Welfare League of America is 20 and may be revised downward this year to 15.

- In some drug-infested cities, the so-called "crack epidemic" has resulted in addicted parents losing all sense of psychological connection to their children, leading to severe neglect and abuse. Increasingly, babies of drug-addicted or AIDS-infected mothers are being abandoned in hospitals.

- The foster care system is collapsing under the strain of numbers, tough cases and lack of enough good foster families.

Part of the difficulty with child abuse and neglect is that no one can accurately define the problem. In fact, there is no child welfare "system" as such. There is a complex patchwork of federal and state programs and agencies, each charged with specific tasks and responsibilities.

A major problem is that funds for expensive programs dealing with crisis situations - like federal foster care - are treated as entitlement programs, with the financing rising 122 percent, while spending for less expensive prevention and support efforts are losing ground financially.

Some members of Congress want to make preventive services an entitlement program to guarantee a steady flow of funds.

Backers say the $5 billion involved is "not that much." That's congressional thinking these days. But even if $5 billion can be more than justified for additional child welfare services, the original cost is certain to grow by leaps and bounds.

What the country clearly needs is better, stronger families with a greater sense of morality and responsibility. Seeing families collapse or never get started, then trying to save the ruined lives of children, is never going to be enough. That is only too little, too late, repair work.