An interdisciplinary task force aimed at helping sexually abused children deal with the trauma is assembling a hospital-based program that also is aimed at strengthening criminal prosecution and providing follow-up care.

St. Luke's Regional Medical Center in Boise has committed physical space and support staff for the "child sexual abuse assessment center," tentatively scheduled to open its doors by spring."It's going to be a major step forward," said Ray Winterowd, chairman of Gov. Cecil Andrus' Task Force on Children at Risk.

The impetus for the program lies in child-abuse caseloads that have skyrocketed in the '80s. The increase is attributed largely to heightened public awareness, improved training of state-mandated "reporters" and tougher criminal penalties.

A generation ago, fewer than than 100 sex abuse cases were reported each year in Idaho. In the fiscal year ending June 30, more than 1,500 cases were reported.

In Ada County, the numbers have soared from 60 reported sex abuse cases in 1980 to 414 in 1987 - nearly a 600 percent increase.

Andrus said he has made child abuse a top priority, pushing for mandatory minimum prison terms for convicted molesters.

The success of the St. Luke's center hinges on the development of a thick set of protocol to be followed by the agencies, and a standardized approach to interviewing victims and conducting medical examinations.

"It has the promise of getting the criminal justice system in position to coordinate its activities in one place to reduce the pressure on these kids and develop winnable cases," Ada County Prosecuting Attorney Greg Bower said.

Although blueprints for the unit still are being developed, hospital officials said it will feature a combination "child-sensitive" play area-interview room that will have videotaping equipment secreted in an observation room behind a two-way mirror.

During the interview, the detective, prosecutor, Health and Welfare representative and others will sit behind the glass.

While videotaped testimony by children is not admissible in Idaho courts, its role in the program will be to prevent repeat interviews. Lawyers may wear out the videotape, but not the child.

Plans also call for hiring at least one skilled interviewer and training physicians in how to conduct child-abuse examinations, Fink said.

St. Luke's will absorb as-yet-undetermined start-up costs, but the program is intended to pay its own way in the long run through grants and medical insurance reimbursements, Fink said.

The center is modeled after the year-old CARES Center, based at Emanuel Hospital in Portland.