Jane Snead kissed her 10-month-old Ashley goodbye on July 28, not knowing it would be for the last time. As she had done every weekday since returning to work, Snead was leaving Ashley in home day care. The baby seemed fine that morning, but by late afternoon she was dead, poisoned by drugs.

Martha E. Guba of Fairfax County was convicted Friday of child neglect in Ashley's death. The prosecution said that Guba had given the infant the prescription drug imipramine to keep her quiet.

The death spotlights the fact that the majority of those who are paid to care for children in their homes are beyond the reach of effective regulation.

Guba was on a list of home day care providers kept by the Fairfax County Office for Children and provided to anyone who asks for it. Guba had been convicted in Virginia in 1968 of neglecting her own two children, a fact not known to the county until after Ashley's death.

In recent years, governments and businesses have spent increasing sums on day care, but almost always these budget infusions are for expanding the system, not policing it. On Wednesday, Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles proposed an increase from $3 million to $13 million in the state's child care subsidy for poor working mothers.

Few paid caretakers of children in the Washington area have had their homes inspected, been given medical and mental health tests or undergone criminal background checks, according to local child care officials.

In recent months:

1-year-old Melissa Solesby apparently drowned in October while in the apartment of a Montgomery County woman who looked after six children in an unlicensed day care arrangement. Jeanne Raines, 21, of Germantown has been indicted on charges of manslaughter and child abuse in the case, which has not gone to trial. Jessica McClure, the 18-month-old girl stuck for more than two days after falling into an abandoned well in Midland, Tex., in October, was one of nine children being cared for at the time at an unlicensed day care home owned by her aunt. 2-year-old Gregory Miller ran in front of a bus Oct. 7 and was killed. He was in the care of an unlicensed day care provider in New Britain, Conn.

As the number of working women increases -- 65 percent of all women in the Washington metropolitan area work, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data -- demand for day care also rises.

In just two years, the number of Fairfax County home day care providers on the county list jumped from 350 to 1,100 homes.

In Montgomery County and the District, the number of licensed or registered homes increased 39 percent since 1983. There are currently 1,049 licensed home day care providers in Montgomery County and 352 in the District.

Nationally the number of licensed home day care providers has increased to 200,000 from 150,000 in 1984.

A rising number of children are mistreated or neglected in day care, said Helen Black, the director of child care at the Children's Defense Fund, and as a result her organization and others are seeking federal legislation that would mandate tougher home day care regulations.

Far more children are cared for in homes -- either regulated or unregulated -- than in institutional day care centers, but only the centers are subject to tough regulations, Black said.

Further, of the children in family day care, only about one in six is in a licensed facility, according to the National Association for Family Day Care and the Children's Foundation. As many as 1.3 million children nationwide are in unlicensed day care homes, according to a 1987 study done by the Children's Foundation, an advocacy group.

Virginia has the weakest regulations in the Washington area. The state does not require licensing or impose regulations on those providing day care for five or fewer children. The records of those who seek day care licenses are supposed to be screened by social service agencies, which are overburdened. In the event of child abuse allegations or convictions, the applicants are supposed to be disqualified. Unless day care providers serve more than 10 children, however, they are usually not subject to a police background check and such checks are restricted to Virginia records, not those in other states or the District.

"Someone could be a mass murderer and still pass the {licensing} test," said DeAnn Lineberry, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Social Services.

Ellen Tuyahov, of the Fairfax County Office for Children, said that Virginia does not permit counties to review the National Crime and Information Computer, where all criminal convictions would be listed.

"We can trace a car on the FBI computer, but not the people who are caring for our children," Tuyahov said.

FBI spokesman Greg Jones said that the agency and Congress "are currently discussing" the possibility of allowing local social service agencies to have access to the crime information computer.

In the District, criminal background checks are not conducted on home day care providers because, according to the District's child care coordinator Herman Cook, "even if we contact the D.C. police, they are not going to pick up abuse in other states."

The District requires three written references and a medical exam of the day care provider, and performs unannounced home inspections, Cook said. However, until November, the District had only three inspectors for the 666 licensed day care homes and centers. It currently has seven inspectors.

Maryland has the most stringent requirements in the region; the state requires that anyone regularly caring for even one unrelated child obtain a license and undergo a background check. In addition, the day care provider's home must be inspected.

However, child care specialists say that even the toughest regulations do not place a safety net under most children in day care.

Jacqueline Smith, at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, estimated that 14 percent of all Washington area youngsters in day care were in licensed homes or regulated facilities.

Because there are few incentives to register or get a license and limited enforcement of the regulations that do exist, many home day care providers operate off-the-books businesses without reporting their income and forgo the hassle of applying for licenses and submitting to background checks. Even if caught without a license, the only penalty is a fine, which is rarely imposed, according to D.C. and Virginia regulatory officials.

Inadequate regulation is "something everybody has basically ignored," said David Pierson, editor of the Child Care Review, a national day care industry magazine. "No state would allow an unlicensed bar to keep operating, but yet we have unlicensed {day care} homes. We have tougher standards for bars than for our kids."

"A sub-industry has grown up," said Pierson. He said governments are not regulating day care because they view it as "too big of a problem."

COG in the past advertised and recruited home day care providers, whom it referred to local jurisdictions. Smith said that COG has stopped recruiting, however, because local jurisdictions couldn't keep up with all those who are now offering their services.

"They cannot cope with an extra 100 people calling them," Smith said. "They are overworked . . . nobody seems to be earmarking visits for social workers for inspections."

Black of the Children's Defense Fund said the major question is whether the new funds for day care should go to expansion or improved regulation and enforcement. "As a nation we haven't put anything of substance into child care," she said. "Training and inspection? We are saying that's not important."

"You regulate plumbers and you regulate electricians," said Sandy Gellert, president of the National Association for Family Day Care, "but you don't regulate the most important product: kids.

"We are still operating in the '50s era, even though we are in the '80s. The legislatures are old-minded and old-school. They still think of women at home, barefoot and in the kitchen. Well, it's the '80s, and working women are here to stay. We have got to address the day care problem."