LONDON — The British public was horrified not long ago by the courtroom disclosure that a 4-year-old girl named Jasmine had been beaten to death by her stepfather.
Jasmine had not died as the result of a single attack. For the last 10 months of her life, she had been brutalized consistently and had suffered 40 injuries to her head and body. When she died, she weighed only 23 pounds. A pathologist's report said she was the victim of "repeated episodes of severe physical violence and chronic, severe neglect."
Jasmine's case reflects the growing awareness of child abuse in much of Western Europe. Times correspondents in Britain and on the Continent have found that, as in the United States, public attention is being focused increasingly on the plight of physical and psychological assault, much of it sexual.
Child abuse has long been a virtually unmentionable subject here, enshrouded in greater secrecy than in the United States, perhaps because of a widespread feeling described by Dr. Ernesto Caffo, a child psychiatrist in Bologna, Italy.
"I think the reason child abuse has only been brought to public attention in the last five years," he said, "is that the family has always been considered a sacred haven for children, and institutions were thought to be things that one simply could not trust."
Taking their lead from their American counterparts, though, child welfare officials throughout Europe are bringing the problem of child abuse into the open to study the phenomenon, intervene on behalf of the victims and and, in some cases, to punish the guilty. Still, researchers agree that official figures, where available, do not really reflect the extent of the problem. Large numbers of cases continue to go unreported.
In Britain, at least one child a week dies at home at the hands of its parents, according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It is estimated that there were at least 50,000 cases of child abuse in Britain last year.
"We've learned to recognize the problem earlier," Sue Creighton of the society said recently. "Social workers who deal with the problem of child abuse have gained more expertise, and, as they do so, we hope to reduce the scope of the problem."
In the Netherlands, Klaas Kooyman, head of the Agency for Mishandled Children, said more than 3,000 child abuse cases were reported last year but added that secrecy surrounds the subject and there were undoubtedly more.
"In the United States," he said, "it is mandatory to report cases of child beating, but here it is voluntary, so we know that many cases are not reported."
The authorities estimate that 50,000 children are abused every year in France, and that about 700 of them die. In France, too, not every case is reported, but the wall of silence is being torn down as the result of medical conferences and a publicity campaign by the Ministry of Welfare.
One reason for the silence is the fact that family matters have always been regarded as strictly private. Marie Jose Chombart de Lauwe, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research, put it like this: "The French child is considered the property of the parents, and, in the past, outside interference was not tolerated."
Jean Claude Chesnais of the National Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris contended, "The number of abused children is actually decreasing in Western nations, including France, but the awareness of the problem is becoming more acute."
In West Germany, statistics indicate that about 30,000 children may have been the victims of child abuse last year. Volunteer organizations suggest that there were thousands of additional cases that were not reported.
Walter Wilken, director of the Society for the Protection of Children, in Hanover, said: "Victims in the United States speak openly about child abuse. Here they just don't talk."
Yet when the West German women's magazine Brigitte published an article about sexual abuse of children and asked for reader response, the result was an avalanche of mail.
"We were overwhelmed," said the magazine's editor, Angelika Gardina-Suertel. "We didn't think women would talk about such things."
In Sweden, one of the most progressive countries in terms of social legislation, there are no official figures on child abuse. Still, about 500 children were taken from their parents last year, presumably for abuse or neglect of some kind. Moreover, about 15,000 children--1% of the child population--are under state supervision or in foster homes. An estimated 10 to 15 children were beaten to death last year.
Barbro Joberger, a writer for Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's largest morning paper, said: "Child abuse is a hot topic here. You can touch it. You can see it. Yet no one wants to do anything with it."