In Maryland, there are 8,300 children living apart from their natural parents in a confusing world known as foster care. Here they drift from family to family, often for years, waiting for their own parents to take them home or for the courts to free them to new parents willing to adopt them.

They are mostly children who have been beaten or neglected, children of rootless parents who cannot afford to bring them up, children who are physically or emotionally handicapped. And they are wards of the state, clothed and fed mostly with state money and bound by state laws that often keep them living transient lives.

Although historically most foster children have come from poor families, the trend is changing. State social workers say that as the nation's economy slips downward, more children are put into foster care as other income levels feel the economic pinch.

State officials predict that with the Reagan administration's new cuts in federal programs, Maryland will continue a recent pattern of increases in child abuse cases, child abuse fatalities, and the breakup of families succumbing to the pressures of unemployment and fewer government benefits, all of which add to the numbers of children in foster care.

"The number of reported abuses and neglect cases goes up when the economy slips," says Rick Pecora of the Baltimore Legal Aid Society. "In bad times the number of kids coming into child care increases."

Now lawmakers here must decide how to cope with these problems. Officials also are worried about the fate of Maryland's foster care and adoption program, which improved dramatically in the past two years because of federal regulations. These rules may disappear under the administration's proposed "block grant" program cuts.

Last week legislators heard foster-care experts testify that a new child welfare bill would reduce foster care "drift" by speeding up the process that determines when--or whether--parents are fit to take their children back, and that would clarify rules that sometimes prevent children with long-missing parents from being adopted.

The problem, the experts said, is that current state laws are too vague, resulting in courts handling adoption cases inconsistently. Rarely are children released from their biological parents and put up for adoption before they have been in foster care for two years, even in cases where the children have been abandoned or where contact with the parents has ceased. The result, according to child welfare workers and lawyers, is that children get caught in the foster-care system, moving from one family to the next with neither the hope of returning home nor of finding new permanent parents.

"Many kids have wound up growing up in foster care," says Fern Blake, director of adoption services at the state Social Services Administration. "What we are trying to do is make sure that never happens to new kids in the system."

State foster-care workers report that roughly 75 percent of the 8,300 children in foster care have been in the system for longer than two years. The average foster-care child is 12 years old and has lived in three foster-care homes. Of the 1,400 children legally separated from their parents, only 300 were adopted last year, despite a long waiting list of couples eager to adopt them.

"The most discouraging aspect . . . for most of us has been the delays we see over and over again," says Gerard P. Uehlinger, a lawyer who sits on one of the state's 16 foster-care review boards. "Clarity in the law should expedite the proceedings and thus reduce the trauma on the child."

A child should stay in foster care no more than 18 months, according to social workers. The foster-care experience should be temporary, allowing parents enough time to straighten themselves out, but not so much time that the child is placed in perpetual uncertainty if the parents are unable to take responsibility.

Legislation involving adoption of foster children is a delicate matter in the General Assembly. Some legislators have said in the past that they are reluctant to pass measures that would enable children to be legally separated from their parents, no matter how bad the family circumstances.

But supporters of the new child-welfare bill, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's) and the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it would create an incentive for parental involvement by providing a stricter definition of what constitutes communication between parents and child and by requiring parents to receive counseling.

"The primary objective is to protect children and parents who are outside of their normal family environment," says Cheryl Lynch, a lobbyist with Associated Catholic Charities and a key supporter of the bill. "It's like a contract between the biological parents and the agency. The first effort, of course, is to return the child home. When that isn't possible, it is time for termination of parental rights , because kids need some stability."

The measure also requires a court review of all children who are still in the system six months after they have become legally available for adoption.

The child-welfare system is an expensive one, as the state pays foster families an average of $150 each month for food and clothing for each child. Almost 800 families are reimbursed for medical expenses because their foster children have special physical or emotional needs.

Gov. Harry Hughes has proposed in his fiscal 1983 budget a 9 percent increase in foster-care payments, but the federal matching funds the state receives for other foster-care costs may be cut as much as 18 percent. Already, there have been 49 layoffs in the foster-care division of the Social Services Administration, largely the result of Reagan budget cuts, making delays in processing cases more likely.

"We really applaud the state government so far, but it's going to get harder and harder," says Wendy Sherman, director of the Social Services Administration's child-welfare division. "Any further federal reductions are going to stop us in our tracks."

There is no shortage of couples waiting to adopt children, even those children with severe handicaps or the growing number who are in their teens.

"When you look at the kids who are adopted today you see Down's syndrome, quadraplegics, severe retardation," Blake says. "We have kids going to families that we never dreamed would take them."

The Social Services Administration has a nationwide exchange of foster-care listings, a telephone tie-line for people who are interested in adopting children, and an arrangement with a Baltimore television station that broadcasts pictures and descriptions of children who are available.

"We've almost gone to a marketing approach," Blake says of the nightly television spots. "We have found that kids are their own best recruiters."