Drug use in major U.S. cities is fueling the rise in child abuse, which killed more than 1,200 youngsters in 1988, a survey shows.

"It's hard to think of treating the problem of child abuse before treating the problem of drug abuse," said Leslie Mitchel, co-author of a survey released Thursday by the Chicago-based National Committee on the Prevention of Child Abuse.Child-abuse deaths rose 5 percent in 1988 to 1,225, compared with 1,163 deaths the year before, the committee said in its annual report on child abuse. The report was based on a 50-state survey.

More than 2.2 million child-abuse reports were filed nationwide last year, about 3 percent more than in 1987, the committee estimated, using data from 41 states and the District of Columbia.

Data from other states were unavailable, said the committee, which gathered statistics by telephone from the federal liaisons for child abuse and neglect in each state.

Of the 32 states that could provide information about problems linked to child abuse, 22 cited substance abuse "as the dominant characteristic among their caseloads," the report said.

"In the District of Columbia, for example, almost 90 percent of the caretakers reported for child abuse are active substance abusers," the committee said. "While nationwide, the percentage of cases involving substance abuse has historically remained at 30 percent to 40 percent, the current population includes a greater number of more violent and dependent drug addicts."

Mitchel, who wrote the 21-page report with Deborah Daro, said state representatives "wished they could go back to the days of heroin and marijuana," rather than having to cope with cocaine and its powerful derivative, crack.

Addictions to cocaine are more expensive to maintain, "so the parents' attention is focused on getting the drug, and the dependency itself consumes their time," Mitchel said.

Abusers tend to be "off in another world," and more likely to neglect their children, she said.

Katie Bond, a spokeswoman for the Denver-based American Association for Protecting Children, which gathers child-abuse statistics for the federal government, said the new findings are probably on target.

But increasing reports of child abuse and fatalities have not resulted in more money to combat the problem, the committee's report said.

"In 1988, only 12 states received increases in child welfare budgets, and the majority of these funds merely provided for cost of living increases," the report said.

*****> (CHART)

Child Abuse

CASES: Number of nationwide reports of child abuse in millions.

1980........1.1

1981........1.2

1982........1.3

1983........1.4

1984........1.7

1985........1.9

1986........2.1

1987........2.2

1988.. over 2.2

DEATHS: Number of nationwide reports of child-abuse fatalities.

1985*.......899

1986........1,171

1987........1,163

1988........1,225

* First year for which figures were available

Source: National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse