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When interviewed by telephone recently for a federal survey, parents in two-parent families far less frequently reported that they physically abused their children than did parents interviewed on the subject a decade ago.

The $500,000 study was sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health.

At the same time, the same proportion of those surveyed as a decade ago said they believed violence exists within families, according to the study, whose findings were presented this month at a Chicago conference sponsored by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Based on the two surveys--the first a 1975 sampling of 2,143 individuals interviewed face-to-face, the other telephone interviews conducted this year with 6,000 individuals selected through random-digit-dialing--the researchers concluded that severe violence against children in two-parent families has declined by 23 percent and very severe violence has decreased by 47 percent. Vio-lence was defined as slapping, spanking, hitting, beating, threatening with a gun or knife, or using a gun or knife.

Richard J. Gelles, dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of Rhode Island and co-author of the study, said in an interview that the results could be interpreted to mean that violence against children is on the decline. The results might also indicate, he acknowledged, that people are less willing to admit to such behavior because they recognize it as inappropriate.

Murray A. Strauss, professor of sociology and director of the family- research laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, co-authored the study. The surveys were conducted by Louis Harris and Associates.

Jane N. Burnley, associate commissioner for the Children's Bureau of the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said she was pleased with the study's findings but stressed that they apply only to two-parent families. "We know full well that those are the families that are doing the best these days," said Ms. Burnley, who oversees the national child-abuse center.

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