The mounting horror stories about children who have died because of inadequate child care arrangements can mean only one thing -- that the people who run our government must be just too mean-spirited and/or indifferent to feel the pain of dying children.

"It's not our job," many federal officials have said of child care. "Let the states and the private sector do it." The states and the private sector have performed in a piecemeal, often haphazard way.

Therefore there continues to be case after case of children who die because their parents had to leave them alone while they went to work.

Last week, two 6-year-old children died in a fire in Reston while the mother of one of them worked. An 8-year-old baby sitter was able to escape. Sandra James, the mother of the boy who died, had only recently taken a part-time job after she learned that the child care she had been providing in her home was prohibited under the rules of the condominium in which they lived.

Not long ago in Dade County, Fla., Linda Grant qualified for child care help for her two boys, aged 3 and 4, but had to get on a waiting list with 22,000 others.

Grant was forced to depend on friends and relatives, but sometimes they were unable to help, and she had to leave the children alone.

On one such day, the boys climbed in what seemed to be a cozy place to look at a magazine -- a clothes dryer. When they shut the door, they tumbled and burned to death.

In both these cases, these women -- like millions of others -- were trying to be self-sufficient instead of dependent. And their efforts only met with tragedy.

Indeed, things are so bad that even the professional child care advocates are despairing.

"As a mother, I can't stand it anymore that it takes these kinds of tragedies to dramatize the problem," says Helen Blanks, director of child care at the Children's Defense Fund. "It hurts. These little children shouldn't be home alone."

But younger and younger children are indeed being left alone as mothers, particularly single mothers, are left with a terrible choice -- which often, because of economic circumstances, isn't a choice at all -- their jobs or their children.

Indeed, the government has failed in even setting an example for private industry and the states by not providing for its own employes.

Last week, the House Government Operations Committee said that the government has failed to live up to its responsibility to help its employes with their "pressing" need for child care. It urged more day care centers at federal job sites in part "to inspire and provide a model for private business."

Here and there, a state jurisdiction, a local jurisdiction, a forward-looking private company, are taking the steps to provide child care for their employes.

It may be useful to examine those and see what would be workable on a large scale and what kind of incentives could be created so that more of these innovative child care situations that are so desperately needed can be replicated.

While even middle-class women who can pay for child care are desperate for help, not surprisingly, the 5 million children younger than 6 who live in poverty have the fewest options.

Indeed, the cry for a national child care policy is mounting. The largest AFL-CIO union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is calling for the federal government to play a major role in providing quality child care.

According to Edward Zigler, a Yale University sociologist well versed in child care, "a basic, structural, institutional change" is required to meet the enormous problem of inadequate care for children.

Congress can take a significant step soon toward proving that it does care about children. The Alliance for Better Child Care is to go before Congress in mid-November with its new proposal in which $2.5 billion will be sought for child care.

What a pleasure it would be to open the pages of our daily newspapers and find pictures or stories dealing with successful child care programs and happy children befitting a rich nation, instead of the battery of stories detailing the terrible tragedy spawned by financial need and government indifference.