DURING DECEMBER the director of one Washington adoption agency notices a sharp increase in phone calls from people wanting to adopt a child. Another director has actually received calls from people asking to borrow an orphan for Christmas. (Not as callous as it sounds, the request is a genuine one from people who think orphans are still housed in orphanages.) The director thanks them and explains that in Washington orphans live with foster parents until they are adopted and so will have a real Christmas with presents and a tree.

The reason for the interest is as simple as the meaning of Christmas: the birth of a child. And those people who may feel lonely, or unloved, without a child's presence, feel so most acutely at Christmastime. A well laden tree looks a bit barren without toys beneath it - not to mention the absence of the smothering "thanks-Mom-and-Dad!" hug.

The Christmas season callers, according to the adoption directors, are sincere. But while some of these prospective parents follow up on their first call, others, momentarily motivated by a burst of emotion, are never heard from again.

Adding to a family by adoption requires perseverance, even though there are more than 500,000 American children waiting for homes. Despite the decline in the national birthrate, the increased breakup of families has left almost 8000 children in the Washington area in foster homes, waiting.

Although there are children waiting for homes, a couple hoping for a newborn girl may have to wait three to five years to start a family.

Toddlers and older children make up the majority of those waiting to be placed, but newborns are available for adoption here for the first time since the 1975 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Also available are infants and children of economically deprived countries with private and religious adoption agencies establishing the overseas arrangements.

But after years of reduced federal funding of social services, public and private agencies in the United States have so reduced their staffs they cannot resolve all these adoption needs. Some agencies like Montgomery County Social Services hold meetings for prospective adoptive parents no more than four times a year. Some agencies will not accept single parents as applicants. Many discourage transracial adoption on the theory that a child is better off in a foster home than growing up with parents of another race or culture. Others will not conduct home studies requested by prospective parents for overseas adoption.

Agencies unable to process adoption requests develop a curt manner to weed out tentative inquiries over the phone. If you insist you are looking for a flawless newborn you might never be granted so much as an interview. But if you quickly make it known you are willing to adopt siblings or an older child or a "special" child, you may hold the attention of the social worker answering your phone call. The proud mother of an adopted three-year-old finally made an impression when she dropped her meek queries and announced: "My husband and I have two terrific sons and all four of us want to adopt a little girl."

The lesson for would-be adoptive parents is to be persistent. It may be necessary to call a half-dozen adoption agencies - actually leaf through the Yellow Pages under "Social Services" - before finding an agency willing for so much as a first meeting.

The majority of adoption placements today are of "children with special need," the latest euphemism for the harsher label: hard-to-place-child. The special child may be older, a child with medical problems, often one with psychological and learning problems, or a child with brothers and sisters needing to be adopted by the same family.

Usually the older child is more than three years old and has lived with foster parents. The typical older child has been offered for adoption because a young mother finds raising a child limits her own chances for education, jobs or marriage. Others have been released for adoption by court order because of parental neglect or abuse. Nevertheless, some older children may be as young as three months, given up for adoption by teen-aged mothers who find that rather than a doll-like creature to be bathed and dressed, a baby is more than they can manage.

Medical problems in special children may range from blindness to malformed limbs to congenital disease. They may also be as minor as nearsightedness. Bobby, for instance, was labeled a special child because he was three years old, wore thick corrective glasses and had been removed from his biological parents to a foster home. Adoption would mean adjusting to a third family. But after two years of security with a family in which everyone wears glasses, Bobby finally realizes he is home "forever."

Understandably older children can be emotionally disturbed. Not having parents is disturbing. Children who have been physically abused by their biological parents or who have been placed in a series of foster homes suffer from feeling abandoned and often believe it was their fault.

Adoptive parents of an emotionally scarred older child, one who has learned to mistrust the world and himself, have as difficult a job ahead as do those of children with intellectual deficits.

In a society where parents take great pride in recounting their child's academic achievements, the children most desperately needing homes are those labeled mentally retarded. There is a small but growing group of adults who realize they do not require high achievers for children and who can love a child no matter what his potential IQ, but sadly, these individuals do not begin to supply the needed mothers and fathers.

Ironically, parental love and the security of a permanent home may unlock a repressed child's ability to learn and develop. Suzy, a two-year-old black child, was designated slow and nonverbal in her foster home - mentally retarded. Now she chatters, kisses and whispers her daddy and new big brother into total submission. They are pushovers for the changed, bright, extroverted little girl.

Unlike Bobby and Suzy, Steve has not yet found a home because there are few black families adopting older black children. A handsome, medium-complexioned black child with an irresistible smile even after eight years of waiting in the District for a family of his own, he is described by his social worker as:

". . . all boy. A tall robust eight year old, Steve has a ready smile and cheerful outlook. His bicycle and playing baseball are the most important things in Steve's life right now. He is always ready for an outing to the park or zoo. His special wish is to be a Boy Scout when he becomes old enough. When scolded harshly, he tends to withdraw and become quiet rather than act out. He will make some lucky people a wonderful son."

The reappearance in the last year or two of infants available for adoption may represent a trend too new to evaluate accurately, but Judith Edes, social worker at Northern Virginia Psychological Center whose field is family counseling, offers one explanation. "Women who have undergone one or two abortions in the past and found it a painful and emotionally destructive process do not want to experience it again." Women rejecting abortion as the only solution to unwanted children, along with growing public concern about detrimental side-effects of birth control pills and I.U.D.s, may also help explain the small increase in the availability for adoption of both white and black infants.

"Fighting your way through the bureaucratic entanglements really tests the strength of your desire," observed a government administrator seeking an adopted child."That we are adopting a child from overseas adds incredibly to the complication and delays. All these months we thought it was the Korean government holding up the adoption and here it was our own Immigration and Naturalization Service that had lost our home study papers and adoption release along with my birth certificate."

Despite INS incompetence, despite roadblocks set up by Vietnamese regimes, slowdowns in Seoul of visa processing for Korean orphans and the tangle of South American regulations, there are childrn in Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea, the Philippines and South America who can be adopted by determined Americans.

In many of these countries, flurries of nationalism take the form of denials that orphans exist or embargoes on out-of-country adoption. Both forms doom thousands of babies and children to the life-in-death existence of orphanages and shelters.

Lynly Zervas, a dog breeder and 1970s resident of Saigon now living in Montgomery County, grimly remarks, "A mongrel at the Montgomery County animal shelter is given more love and a better diet than a child in an Asian orphanage." Limited funds and the over-whelming number of children usually result in protein-deficient diets and three to an iron crib.

Jan de Hartog, author and representive of a Quaker mission in Vietnam, writes in his autobiography The Children, that was "haunted by the faces of the dying infants in iron cots and by the vision of hundreds of toddlers lying apathetically on the hot concrete of the court-yard in the scorching sun, one lapping up his own urine to slake his thirst."

Explaining what to a Westerner would be criminal negligence, he relates, "One of the women squatting against the wall at the far end of a row of cots got to her feet, picked up two babies and carried them to a high dressing chest, where she began to paint the sores on their heads with the standard copper-sulphate solution. I turned away to talk with the mother superior . . . We looked around and saw that one of the babies had dropped off the chest onto the concrete floor. The woman picked the inert little body up by an arm, carried it back to its cot, dropped it inside and returned to the dressing chest, where she continued to paint the skull of the one who was left." He receives the explanation from the num that such action is not motivated by cruelty but the belief that since each individual life is the continuation of a past existence, what is meted out in this existence is the result of conduct in the last life.

Even among those who reach the comparative safety of an orphanage many are observed to die slowly from no apparent cause. They seem to wither from lack of love.

In Korea, where orphanage established by Harry Holt, founder of the Holt Adoption Program, and Pearl Buck of Welcome House, have operated with the cooperation of the Korean government for some twenty years, situations are vastly better. A recent Wall Street Jounal story reveals that the Park Chung Hee government, in retaliation for Capitol Hill investigations of alleged bribery by South Koreans, is deliberately slowing down the processing of visas for Korean orphans being adopted by American parents.

The children who finally do reach homes in the U.S. (as well as Australia, Canada and Europe) despite their shriveled, malnourished appearances may do remarkably well. Those little survivors represent the strongest and most determined of the young; the weak die from exposure, hunger, or disease.

Among the lucky ones are two exquisite little sisters with dark frightened eyes wo arrived in Washington from Korea when they were three and six years old. They had led a transient existence in Pusan until they landed in a crowded orphanage where they stayed with a "mean lady" until cleared for adoption. Today at seven and ten, besides being the most popular kids on the block, the sisters excel at swimming, gymnastics and dance. Eager learners, the girls also take pride in helping their parents at home.

The number of individuals seeking to adopt children has been swelled by single parents and by couples who choose to adopt rather than bear biological children. Now couples who already have one or two children often choose to enlarge their families through adoption. After consulting with their children, they may adopt an older child or one with physical handicaps.

When the four sons of a Maryland couple demanded "a sister this time!" adoption was the only way to guarantee a girl. After much reflection, the family decided to adopt a nine-year-old girl with learning disabilities. They explain a seemingly hard choice simply. All felt they should share their good fortune and blessings with someone else.

Although having a biological child once barred a couple from adopting (and still does at several agencies) many adoption agencies welcome couples with children. Experienced parents frequently are most flexible and feel capable of adopting older or special children. "Having experienced diapers, two o'clock feedings and potty training with my own two, I was more than willing to relinquish such joys to those who have not yet raised an infant," says a mother of three, the last an adopted four-year-old.

Another couple waiting for the arrival of their five-year-old son explained, "We wanted to adopt a child old enough to play and fight with our six-year-old daughter. If we adopt an infant we would be raising two 'only' children."

Before Hope Marindin, founder of the Committee for Single Adoptive Parents, organized her group as a lobbying and information source for unmarried prospective parents, single men and women were struggling against custom and legislation that unfairly pegged them as last-ditch parents, overlooking their extraordinary interest and obvious desire to nurture a child. Marindin lobbied for the revision of an immigration law that barred adoption by single parents of children coming from overseas. She estimates there are twenty-nine single adoptive parents in the greater Washington area, 900 nation-wide and that she receives inquiring phone calls from as far as Oregon.

The shibboleths of the last generation die slowly and adoptive parents recount having to assuage the fears and prejudices of their parents and grandparents when they announce the news of an impending addition to the family. An attitude that adopted children carry the "shame of illegitimacy" clings to some adoptive grandparents and the 1920s controversy over the predominance of environment or heredity in forming a child unsettles others. Since most agencies urge that parents discuss the adoption with all members of the family and make every fffort to assure loving grandparents and welcoming aunts, uncles and cousins for the adopted child, the adoptive parents must try to pave the way for their child without denying the established traditions of their own family. For some with extended families that is delicate undertaking. At a St. Patrick's Day party or a bar mitzvah the presence of a child who has no share in the culture being celebrated can unnerve the gathered relatives.

It is not just the child who needs relatives' support. The adoptive parents daily face tests of their understanding as they deal with their child's fears and confusion.

For all children, the night can be scary time when dreams of the day's defeats return and the friendly monsters of storybook and television turn threatening. The night holds different ghosts for the adopted child.

For four months the mother of an apparently happy, adjusted three-year-old sat recking and soothing the terrified child throughout the night when the shadows of his dreams dragged him back to orphanaged and foster homes. In the sunlight he felt safe. Those four sleepless months were the "worst of my life" recalls the mother who outlasted and routed the ghosts.

The father of an eight-year-old Cambodian was appalled to see his son sit for hours playing with the baby's blocks and pull-toys. Neither baseball game nor bicycle could lure him away from the Tinker Toys and furry animals. "A simple little thing like childhood" was being discovered, the father realized finally. The child never had a chance to play with toys before and had to start at the beginning and work up to the games for his age level.

Adoptive parents may be overly anxious to excel as parents and they may worry secretly that the biological mother of their child will reappear some day to claim the child's affection, or that their child will go out in search of the "lady who bore me." One Jewish father, tormented to read of a case in which a child adopted by Jewish parents was returned, after a court fight, to the Catholic biological mother in a predominantly Catholic state, carefully researched state adoption laws before he adopted his children from a state which sealed birth records of adopted children.

Other adoptive parents search carefully for information on their child's background "to store up" for the day he needs and wants it. They realize that some day their child may want concrete information about his origins, not as a denial of the adoptive parents but from natural curiosity. "No child belongs to his parents; they are only ours long enough to raise and send out into the world," advises an adoptive grandmother. Her observation answers the most common objection adoptive parents encounter."They never will be really yours."

If you are already parents, the objection most likely raised will be one that might haunt you as you endure the long months an adoption requires. "You will never love them as much as you love your own children."

At night, before the child arrives, a nagging fear of not loving this child as much as your own flesh and blood will recur. If you continue to think of love as something contained in measuring spoons, the torment will continue.History, politics and the Bible are full of favorite sons.If you end up loving one child more than another or differently from another - so what? Were you a favorite child?

But only after you have rocked the child to sleep or walked him to the toilet in the middle of the night or learned he wasn't invited to a classmate's birthday party will you realize what nonsense the question is.

If your adopted child is coming to you from another country the two objections most likely posed will be:

"They are much better off growing up in their own culture."

"Why don't you adopt a child from the U.S.A.?"

The answer to the first is that they probably won't grow up at all and the second, "Why don't you?"

Presumably you are not interested in buying an infant on the black market - for prices reputedly from $10,000 to $50,000. The choices, then, are independent or agency adoption.

Independent adoption is usually arranged by the parents who learn of a child's existence through family members or through contact with an obstetrician treating a pregnant woman who cannot raise her child. The child never reaches a public or private adoption agency and the adoptive parents pay legal fees to a lawyer who draws up the adoption papers and, if the child is a newborn, pays the hospital and obstetric fees. Having access to such an obstetrician with such a patient or belonging to a family with an adoptable child is fortuitous when it works, but can be plagued with problems. Finding an adoption agency is the route taken by most adoptive parents.

Adoption agencies represent the orphan both legally and practically. When a new-born is released for adoption, an agency assumes responsibility for all obstetric bills, pediatric bills and hospital bills and supports the infant, usually in a foster home, until the child can be placed. With older children, the agency assumes all medical, educational and living costs until the child is adopted.

Private agencies meet these expenses by charging fees to adoptive parents usually on a sliding scale determined by the family's income; in the District, $1250 has been legislated as the highest allowable fee. Public social service agencies are funded by local and state governments according to a yearly budget request (the adoption department shares funds with all divisions of the social services department). Church-related agencies are supported by donations from church members and the parent denomination.

Fees and fundings are not sufficient to cover costs of adoption plus thecare of the child. Agencies, public and private, compensate with understaffing and overwork. A sample roll call of local adoption social workers reveals no more than three to four workers in each major agency. The shortages make the long, frustrating process even slower.

The adoption procedure is similar in most agencies. An intake session, during which the adoptive parents discuss the child they feel they could adopt, may be conducted over the phone, in a group session with other prospective parents or in a private meeting. If the child they might want to adopt is not available, prospective parents may be directed to another agency.

During the intake meeting, parents are given applications and medical forms to complete. Information requested might include race, religion, occupation, income, savings, debts and education, as well as a description of the child a person or couple feels able to parent. Not until the medical forms are completed by a doctor and returned to the agency will the process continue.

Church-affiliated agencies usually require a statement of faith and many agencies request a copy of the latest IRS form. Wealth is not a prerequisite but fiscal responsibility is.

When a social worker is assigned, the first meeting will be a joint one at which the couple or single parent will be asked to discuss their reasons for wanting to adopt. For those unable to conceive a child, a probing of feelings about infertility is inevitable. One couple able to conceive - who chose to adopt rather than "add to the population explosion" - report that their social worker urged them to consult with a gynecologist about their infertility. They switched to another agency, unable to convince the woman that adoption was their first choice, not a recourse for childlessness.

The joint interview should establish a rapport between the adoptive parents and the social worker assigned to their case study. A mutual confidence and respect is as important in this relationship as between a prospective mother and her obstetrician. If a personality conflict or clash of values seems to be developing it is wise to change social workers or even agencies. This will be an intimate two-or three-year-association.

There will be separate interviews with the social worker during which each partner describes his or her relationship to parents, grandparents brothers and sisters as well as spouse. Each describes the marriage relationship and ten attempts to evaluate his own personality. If one is not accustomed to encounter sessions and consciousness raising, these interviews can be a strain. One capable Washington lawyer, a master at probing the inner motives of his clients, had to cancel afternoon appointments after an emotionally exhaustive morning with the family's adoption social worker.

References are interviewed, including the family pastor in some agencies. Finally a home visit is arranged, not to check the housekeeping abilities of the family but to see how the prospective parents interact in their own surroundings and to meet and talk with any other children. Rather than a cause for apprehension, the home visit is almost cause for celebration since a long process is nearing completion.

A social worker from Family and Child Services of Washington reassured a couple that if a family was to be rejected, it would occur long before the home visit was arranged. When the long-awaited visitor appeared the couple's six-year-old daughter was a model of perfection, showing the social worker her bedroom and the bed where her new brother would sleep, explaining how she would share all her toys and even let him break them. Finally, sitting demurely on a love seat the child whipped out a piece of needlepoint and began stitching. Her father turned red with swallowed laughter. His daughter, a true hoyden, had never sewed in all her jean-clad days. She just did not want to take any chances on losing out on a brother.

Shortly after the home visit, a letter from the agency will confirm that the applicants have been approved as adoptive parents. Then comes the most frustrating wait of all, the wait until the phone call and the announcement that a child is waiting.