RICHMOND, JAN. 29 -- A Virginia Senate committee narrowly voted today to exempt from state child care licensing regulations a half-day program for 1-year-olds at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, despite protests from some legislators that it would be the first of a flood of exemption requests.

An official with the state Department of Social Services, Patricia Sykes, objected strongly to the measure, saying it "puts a larger group of children at risk of no regulation."

Moreover, Sykes took the opportunity to tell the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee that the state's whole child care licensing system is in disarray and needs to be overhauled.

"The department is in a position where we don't even know what we regulate. It's become a nightmare . . . . We can't get a handle on it, to be honest with you," said Sykes, the department's legislative liaison.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), and the director of the program said meeting state requirements is too time-consuming and expensive for this type of facility, which they said is an "educational institution" for 16- to 24-month-olds rather than a child care center.

Regulation of church-run children's centers has been an issue since the General Assembly voted to exempt them from licensing requirements in 1979. A federal judge in Richmond struck down that exemption last May, but the ruling is under appeal. In the meantime, the department was ordered not to exempt new church-run programs, Sykes said.

"A great deal of them {church-run centers} do not meet the fire and safety codes. Many of these groups are proceeding with the exemption route," trying to get special concessions from the legislature, Sykes added.

Current law exempts educational preschools for 2- to 4-year-olds as long as the program lasts no longer than four hours a day and for 5-year-olds for up to 6 1/2 hours a day.

Mitchell's bill, approved by the committee on an 8-to-6 vote, adds to that exemption educational programs for 1-year-olds for up to three hours a day. While the measure does not mention Westminster Presbyterian specifically, Mitchell said it was designed to relieve that program of "onerous" licensing requirements. He said the social services commissioner could require licensing if he or she determined the program is not educational.

"Anything for a 1- to 2-year-old could be construed as educational," Sykes countered.

Mary Breedon, director of the Westminster Presbyterian 1-year-olds program, said the facility is applying for a state child care center license but that the paper work has been cumbersome. "It has taken hours and hours to prepare the material," Breedon said.

The program, which uses teachers with degrees in education, serves 22 children and has a "tremendous waiting list," Breedon said. Asked what makes this an educational institution, she said the infants are taught language development, social skills and cognitive skills. The last category includes "using blocks" and "putting puzzles together," she explained.