Declaring a need to assist parents "desperate" for help, the Fairfax County Office for Children yesterday issued a countywide appeal to adults interested in caring for infants and very small children of working parents.

The problem in Fairfax -- part of a region with the largest percentage in the nation of working women with small children -- has reached crisis proportions, county officials said.

They said it can be resolved only by an outpouring of nonworking adults willing to open their homes during the day to those children.

The officials stressed that participants will be paid for their work. "The goal is to identify those persons who would like to become professional day care providers in their own homes," said Judith Rosen, director of the county's office for children.

"Parents looking for care for infants and toddlers are desperate," added Virginia Holton, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Child Care Advisory Council. Holton said the county is seeking "patient, creative and energetic" people to respond to the growing problem.

The campaign is being conducted by those two county social service agencies in conjunction with local businesses, churches, schools and community organizations. Those interested in participating may call 691-3175.

"There are people out there who would find it an exciting profession," said Rosen, adding that the program lets adults "stay at home while still bringing in a paycheck."

Of the county's 90 day care centers, only nine are geared to overseeing infants.

Rosen said 45 percent of the mothers with children under 3 years of age in Fairfax County are employed. Sixty-six percent of mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 17 have jobs outside the home.

Only those providing care for more than five children must be licensed, Rosen said.

She added, however, that the county will do a strict background check of all applicants to determine whether they have been involved in child abuse cases.