PHILADELPHIA -- Lisa Spurlock knew what she wanted her child to look like when she began classes for adoption three years ago.

"I wanted someone who looked like my family," said Spurlock, 32, as she gazed at her 3-year-old daughter, Maya. "I wanted a little black baby. A little black baby girl."

Spurlock's desire to be a mother was realized about six months ago, when she joined the growing ranks of black singles and couples who are slowly changing the way their community adopts children.

While adoption is not uncommon in the black community, for generations it was more often done on an informal basis, according to adoption specialists. Typically, a relative's child or a neighborhood boy or girl would be welcomed into a home -- "taken in" -- without the involvement of the court system.

Now, black families are also opening their homes to the children of strangers.

One factor fueling legal adoptions among blacks is the breakdown of many extended families in the inner city, a situation that is leaving growing numbers of children without relatives able to take them in.

"With the rise of drug problems . . . with inflation and lack of money, that care that was provided by the extended family became less and less available," said the Rev. William B. Moore, president of the One Church, One Child Program -- a Pennsylvania spinoff of a national movement to match churchgoing families with children who need homes.

Just how many children need permanent homes is not known. The federal government stopped keeping statistics on adoption in the 1970s, according to Joseph Kroll, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children in St. Paul, Minn.

Kroll estimates that there are 75,000 children in foster care throughout the country. The National Foster Parent Association in Houston estimates it at 360,000.

Both Kroll and Gordon Evans, director of the foster parent group, believe that about 35,000 of those children are legally available for adoption.

Most are classified as having special needs -- they are older or have physical or emotional disabilities -- that make it harder for them to be adopted. But many are considered to have special circumstances because they are members of a minority group with traditionally low adoption rates in their community, said Mary Beth Seader, vice president of the National Committee for Adoption in Washington.

Black children, for instance, represent about 38 percent of children awaiting adoption, she said. Figures on other minority groups are sketchy because of inadequate reporting.

Blacks "are way overrepresented, which is one of the challenges," Seader said. "Blacks would have to adopt at a three-times-higher rate than white families" to absorb the number of black children in the adoption system.

Such families are beginning to come forward. According to Seader, there has been "an increase in the last several years of black families' formally adopting, based on the experience from agencies around the country and word of mouth."

"It's still lower than the white population, but it's higher than it was," Seader said.

Last month, a New Jersey couple, Jacqueline and Lonnie Murphy of Vineland, legally adopted a 6-year-old boy named Cru, of black and Japanese ancestry. They had met him a year ago at a picnic where people interested in adoption could meet children who need permanent homes.

"We felt that we were financially, emotionally and physically able to open up our home to a child who needs one," said Jacqueline Murphy, an emergency medical technician and mother of two who was prevented by physical problems from having more children.

"Like we were explaining to our kids, there are a lot of black kids out there who are not as fortunate as we are," she said. "We're blessed. By our being fortunate enough to be able to do this, to bring a child in and raise a child like he was our very own, we feel very lucky."

But many of those now turning to adoption are not two-parent families like the Murphys.

Adoption agencies have been redefining what makes a family suitable, and this has helped increase the pool of adoptive parents for special-needs children.

"Families are being screened in more than they are being screened out," said Jewel McCliment, director of the Pennsylvania Adoption Exchange, a state office that registers children who have special needs. "Agencies are looking for qualities of whether they are able to parent, rather than qualities that would disqualify them."

For instance, agencies are now more open to older couples adopting because many of the children are older, Seader said.

McCliment said that breaking down the stereotypes of who can adopt has helped.

"There were myths, among both blacks and whites, that you can't have children of your own, you have to be married, you have to own your own home, the child would need his own bedroom," McCliment said.

Those were some of the things Marcia Brown believed when she first considered adopting a child in 1985. Brown was then recently divorced and, at 36, considered herself somewhat old to be adopting. She had been living in her apartment in Philadelphia for only a month when she began classes for potential adoptive parents.

"I expected all that to be a drawback, and it wasn't," said Brown, 41, as Shannon, now 5, played with Brown's mother.

Brown was in bed with the flu when a social worker called her in 1986 to tell her about 11-month-old Shannon.

A kindergarten teacher who had spent years caring for other people's children, Brown was ecstatic. "I think if they had told me she had two heads, that would have been okay."

Brown is now in the process of adopting a second child: a son to keep Shannon company as she grows up.

"Being black, adopted and raised by a single parent brings enough problems," Brown said. "They're going to need each other."

While the need is still tremendous, officials in the adoption community are encouraged by the enthusiasm of such people as Brown, Spurlock and the Murphys.

In 1988 and 1989, for instance, the percentage of minority families registering with the Pennsylvania Adoption Exchange as potential adoptive parents increased 20 percent in each year, McCliment said.

Actual adoptions of children registered with the exchange also rose: from 31 black children in 1985 to 47 last year.

"What we see on the exchange is just a fraction of the total (number of children who are adoptable), but who we see is probably a pretty good picture of what's going on," she said.

New Jersey adoption officials have also noticed an increase. Between 1987 and 1989, the number of black children that the state Division of Youth and Family Services placed in permanent homes rose from 297 to 370 -- a jump of 25 percent, while total adoptions grew by only 6 percent.

Mary Lou Sweeney, supervisor of the central office adoption unit, attributes the increase to campaigns to make the community aware that black children need homes as well as the fact that more black children are entering the foster-care system.

One Church, One Child has been especially successful in getting the message to the community.

The state-supported program is based on a concept developed by a Roman Catholic priest in Chicago: Churches help recruit potential adoptive parents by identifying families or individuals "who will say, yes, I want to provide a permanent, loving home for a black child," said Moore, of the Pennsylvania program.

"There is no other institution in the African-American community where people week in and week out gather in such sheer numbers," Moore said. "It is a natural vehicle to identify persons who are interested in adoption. You don't have to go out and look for them or advertise. They come to us.

"We basically say to people that we have to assume responsibility for our youngsters," said Moore, pastor of Tenth Memorial Baptist Church. Since the Pennsylvania program started in June 1988, it has helped place 516 children, he said.