DEAR ABBY: As staff of the Exchange Club Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse of Southern Minnesota Inc., we would like people to know that America's national disgrace and most chilling crime is turning into an epidemic! Some 2.4 million reports of child abuse and neglect were recorded by the nation's child welfare system last year. Child abuse continues to get worse, and our response as a nation has not always been the most effective. According to recent estimates, up to 5,000 children die each year as a direct result of abuse by a parent or guardian. More than 50 percent of the victims are less than a year old!

Abby, please publish this prayer to show that child abuse is everyone's problem, and that we need to work together to break the cycle.A PRAYER FOR CHILDREN

"We pray for children who put chocolate fingers everywhere, who like to be tickled, who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants, who sneak Popsicles before supper, who erase holes in math workbooks, who can never find their shoes.

"And we pray for those who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire, who can't bound in the street in a new pair of sneakers, who never go to the circus, who live in an X-rated world.

"We pray for children who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions, who sleep with the dog and bury the goldfish, who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money, who cover themselves with Band-Aids and sing off-key, who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink, who slurp their soup.

"And we pray for those who never get dessert, who have no safe blanket to drag behind them, who watch their parents watch them die, who can't find any bread to steal, who don't have any rooms to clean up, whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser, whose monsters are real.

"We pray for children who spend all their allowance before Tuesday, who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food, who like ghost stories, who shove dirty clothes under the bed and never rinse the tub, who get visits from the tooth fairy, who don't like to be kissed in front of the carpool, who squirm in church and scream in the phone, whose tears we sometimes laugh at, and whose smiles can make us cry.

"We pray for those whose nightmares come in the daytime, who will eat anything, who aren't spoiled by anybody, who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep, and who live and move, but have no being.

"We pray for children who want to be carried and for those who must, for those we never give up on and for those who don't get a second chance. For those we smother . . . and for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind enough to offer it."Abby, please help us erase this national tragedy of child abuse by urging your readers to get involved in their local child abuse prevention effort. Help us to help others to see that a child is too great a gift to abuse. - PATRICIA KNIEFEL, DIRECTOR

To get Abby's booklet "How to Write Letters for All Occasions," send a long, business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Letter Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054. (Postage is included.)