Widespread publicity about a handful of sexual abuse cases involving day care centers may have caused parents to be more worried than necessary about the safety of their children, researchers say.

A study released Monday by the Family Research Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire estimated that substantially more children are abused at home than in day care settings: 8.9 per 10,000 children at home compared with 5.5 per 10,000 at day care.David Finkelhor, who directed the study, said the results are "a far cry" from the impression many people have gotten because of news accounts about a few incidents of child abuse at day care centers.

"We do not think day care centers in general are high-risk areas," said Finkelhor.

However, he emphasized that child abuse does occur at some day care centers and is particularly hard to ferret out because the perpetrators do not fit stereotypes.

Only 8 percent had prior arrest rec-ords, 50 percent were college graduates and 40 percent were women.

"We just can't say there is a nice shortcut, a couple of easy rules to spot places that might be dangerous," he said.

For example, Finkelhor noted, the study found no signficant differences between the incidence of child abuse in centers with a high teacher-to-pupil ratio and in less adequately staffed centers.

However, Finkelhor and two other participants at a news conference underscored the importance of parents having ready access to day care center activity and making surprise visits to see what is going on.