Four years ago, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter proposed a "conference on families" to provide a forum in which citizens could voice their feelings about the strengths, problems and needs of the American family.

The White House Conference on Families -- predicted to become an emotional battleground between conservatives and liberals -- will be held in three sites across the country this summer. In February and March most states will hold regional public hearings and select delegates.

To follow Carter's mandate "to reach out, not only to scholars and to experts, but to the many thousands of Americans around this country," these statewide meetings are planned to give as many people as possible a chance to speak.

Delegates to the national conference will be nominated through peer election and gubernatorial selection, with a minimum of 30 percent selected by each method.

Washington-area residents can participate in these area conferences:

The District -- Eight "mini-ward" conferences Feb. 2 and 9. The D.C. "State Conference" is Feb. 29 and March 1 at Howard University. The mayor will appoint 4 of the District's 12 delegates, with the remainder elected at the state conference.

To be eligible for nomination as a D.C. delegate you must be a District resident, age 13 or older, testify and sign up at your ward conference as a candidate for nomination. To pre-register for the ward conference or for information, call 462-3375. Handicapped persons in need of transportation, call 347-4986.

Maryland -- Five regional public hearings during February. Although the preregistration deadline has passed for the Montgomery-Prince George's County conference on Feb. 9, any resident 16 and older (with identification) can "speak out" for two minutes between noon and 1 p.m. and 4 and 5 p.m. Written testimony of less than 1,000 words (preferably typewritten) may be submitted by Feb. 16 to Ernestine Wormwood, Montgomery County Office of Family Resources, 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville, Md. 20850. For information, call 279-1530.

Persons interested in becoming one of the state's 10 elected delegates should call (301) 383-2290 to meet the Jan. 31 deadline. Ten more delegates will be appointed by the governor and 10 by a state advisory board.

Virginia -- Held its state conference in November and elected 24 delegates. Twelve more will be selected by the governor.

Roughly two dozen hearings will be held throughout the state in the next two months to give more people a chance to speak. The Northern Virginia meeting is March 8 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at George Mason University.

Persons who wish to testify should submit, by Feb. 23, their name, address, and a brief descriptive statement to Extension Service, 3945 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax, Va. 22030. Speakers will be allowed five minutes each. Since time is limited, conference planners warn that not everyone who applies may be able to testify.