After investigating 12,817 reports of child abuse last year, Utah social workers determined that a total of 8,542 Utah youngsters were indeed abused in 1990 - up from 7,782 the year before.

That's Utah's part of the growing national crisis of child abuse, a crisis on which a U.S. Senate subcommittee has been holding hearings in an effort to find new and better answers to this old and stubborn tragedy.The figures outlined to the committee are more than just a shocking measurement of the chilling dimensions of the problem. They also constitute an indictment of America's failure to come to grips with this growing scandal. For example:

- There were more than 2.5 million reports of child abuse and more than 1,200 abuse-related deaths in 1990 - a 31 percent increase in reports since 1985 and a 38 percent increase in fatalities.

- These figures mean that 39 out of every 1,000 American children were reported as being maltreated last year while at least three children died every day from abuse.

- The abuse occurs primarily within the victims' own families. Less than 5 percent of the cases involved someone outside the child's home. Day care and foster care represented less than 1 percent of all reports.

- Classified by type, 27 percent of all child abuse cases involved physical abuse, 15 percent involved sexual abuse, 46 percent were neglect, and 9 percent were emotional maltreatment.

- About 90 percent of the victims of abuse and neglect, including those who died, involved children under five years old. More than half were under the age of one.

Though some of the increase can be explained by the increased willingness of Americans to report cases of suspected child abuse, the fact remains that parents are treating their children more violently.

Almost as appalling as the dimensions of child abuse is the Bush administration's limp response to the problem. So far, it intends only to call attention to the tragedy of child abuse and neglect through a series of high-profile meetings. But it will not propose any new programs.

This despite a severe shortage of trained social workers to deal with abuse cases. Instead of the desired 20 children per caseworker, the typical caseload is 40 to 72 children. This, too, despite the fact that in some states the starting salary for a caseworker is only $13,000 a year.

More money is clearly needed to finance child welfare programs, provide prevention services to parents, and provide protective services to children.

Such funding should be considered not a drain on the treasury but an investment in America's future. After all, the victims of child abuse are known to suffer long-term consequences lasting well into adulthood. Among those consequences are depression and suicide attempts, impaired reading and learning abilities, plus alcoholism and drug abuse. Also, when victims of child abuse grow up, they tend to abuse their own children.

If Washington won't loosen its purse strings, the states must do so. By finding the funds needed to combat child abuse, America could save money in the long run - and avoid an incalculable amount of human misery.