BALTIMORE, JULY 29 -- Attorneys in a widely heralded foster home abuse case here say a ruling by a federal judge Tuesday goes well beyond previous cases elsewhere in the country in requiring government agencies to protect children in state custody.

In the relatively new field of foster care litigation, U.S. District Judge Joseph C. Howard ordered state officials to take several specific steps designed to tighten supervision and weed out unfit foster parents.

Howard's ruling came in a 55-page preliminary injunction issued Tuesday after he heard testimony of widespread physical, sexual and emotional abuse of hundreds of foster children in Baltimore in a case brought by the Maryland Legal Aid Society and the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund.

In his highly detailed order, Howard directed officials of the state Department of Human Resources to monitor every child in a foster home at least once a month.

In cases where there has been a complaint of mistreatment, he ordered weekly visits by caseworkers.

In addition, the judge ordered officials to report all complaints to juvenile court authorities and the child's attorney within five days of the complaint.

He also required officials to submit a plan within 20 days for review of each foster home in the city to see that they meet licensing standards.

Relying on the few previous cases on the subject, Howard ruled that the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment guarantee of due process extends to state-supervised foster children -- as it does to prisoners and mental patients -- and they thus should be free from harm.

The judge "clearly has said foster children have the same rights," Legal Aid Society lawyer William L. Grimm said in an interview today.

A high-ranking official in the Maryland attorney general's office grudgingly agreed.

"The case is not groundbreaking, but it's important," he said.

The attorney general's office is defending state foster care officials in the Legal Aid case.

Officials said they are studying a possible appeal of Howard's ruling.

There are about 2,800 foster children in Baltimore and 5,000 to 5,500 throughout Maryland, including hundreds in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Attorneys on both sides of the case said they did not know whether Howard's order could be applied only to Baltimore foster homes or all homes in the state.

Grimm said he believes no other court in the country has issued such a far-reaching order requiring monitoring, licensing compliance and reporting to juvenile authorities.

Previous cases are scarce.

A federal judge in Louisiana ruled in 1976 that foster children are entitled under the Social Security Act to proper care and medical services, Grimm said.

But, he said, a more important 14th Amendment "breakthrough case" came in 1981 in the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals.

The court held that under the amendment, a state agency could be held responsible for the child's sexual abuse by a foster parent if the agency had failed to supervise the child's placement in the foster home adequately.

Several attorneys in the Baltimore case said successful placement of foster children is an inexact science at best: The children often are the products of broken or socially disrupted homes and suffer a range of emotional problems; some foster parents are lured by the promise of payments by the state -- about $320 a month per child -- and have little genuine interest in the child.

"It's an incredibly intractable problem," said one official in the attorney general's office.

Grimm acknowledged that unqualified foster parents are a major problem but said there are "also a lot of good, almost angelic foster parents, too."

Added to the problem, according to a Maryland governor's foster care task force report issued in January, is that children often "linger on" for years in what are supposed to be temporary foster homes until they can be assigned to adoptive parents or returned to their parents.

According to the report, the average stay in the state is 5.1 years.

In Baltimore, the average stay is 7.4 years.