Cynthia Gear said her neighbors considered her a godsend when she began operating a small day care center in her Fairfax County apartment, saving them from large, impersonal day care centers or from leaving their children at home alone.

"The parents are so desperate," said 30-year-old Gear. "They have to leave their children, but they want them to have a home atmosphere . . . . I take them on walks to the park. I teach them to swim. We make cookies. We have a ball."

But the State of Virginia views her operation differently and wants to shut it down, contending, "The unlicensed, illegal and unauthorized operation of a family day home . . . constitutes a hazardous condition that poses a threat to the health, safety and welfare of the children receiving care."

State law requires that day care operations providing services for more than five unrelated children be licensed. State officials allege that Gear, whose operation is not licensed, has had as many as nine unrelated youngsters in her apartment at one time.

Gear's case highlights the difficulties faced by many parents throughout the Washington area as they seek to balance the conflicting demands of careers and child care. In the Washington area, 56 percent of mothers with children under 6 years of age hold jobs outside the home, according to a recent survey by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. More than 124,000 preschool-aged children are in need of child care services, the regional agency said.

While state and local officials say they welcome more family day care centers to fill that increasing demand, they also are grappling with varying requirements to regulate the operation of such centers.

"We are not at all trying to eliminate home day care," said DeAnn Lineberry, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Social Services. "But people need to realize that just because they are in the home does not mean the care is not regulated . . . . Our No. 1 purpose is to protect the children."

Although Lineberry declined to comment on Gear's case, she said the agency moves to close family day care centers only after repeated attempts to have the operator apply for a state license.

Gear said she has not applied for a state license because she has been unable to obtain a county license because of local zoning rules. She also said government officials said her kitchen facilities are inadequate.

Debbie Michaelson of the Fairfax County Office for Children said many other people have had trouble receiving clearance from the county to operate family day care centers. Her office began a new promotional campaign in November to encourage people to obtain licenses to open child-care centers in their homes.

A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge is scheduled to decide next week whether to allow the Virginia Department of Social Services to shut down Gear's business. In court documents filed this week, the agency said that state investigators have found more than the maximum allowable limit of five unrelated children in Gear's care during repeated visits to her home.

"All the parents were over here the other night discussing the problem," Gear said in an interview yesterday, while her nephew and five other children took their afternoon naps at her Fairmont Gardens apartment in Annandale. "I honestly don't know what I'll do if the judge tells me to stop. I can't ever turn anyone away from my door."

Although her operation is unlicensed, Gear said she offers flexibility and personal attention that large day care centers cannot match. She allows children to remain at her apartment until whatever time their parents arrive to pick them up. If a neighbor cannot afford her $67-a-week fee, she will offer a reduction or charge nothing.

Gear said that usually she exceeds the legal limit of five unrelated children in her care only on Monday afternoons, when Fairfax County schools let out early. She said the state always makes its unannounced visits to her apartment at those times -- actions that she charged borders on harassment.

"I think she [the official] just sits outside my building and watches me," Gear said. "I don't have any idea why they have decided to go after me."