Just the thought of it is enough to paralyze the mind: 54 children in a single house. That's what Prince George's police and state employees found when they entered the home of an Oxon Hill woman last Thursday afternoon.

About 40 children under the age of 10 were in the basement and 13 babies were in an upstairs bedroom. The only adult in the house was the 18-year-old stepdaughter of Nannie Marie Pressley, 53, who has been ordered to stop operating an unlicensed day-care center.

This is the state of child care in the U.S. today.

What if there had been a fire?

This story is the most glaring example of what happens when parents are desperate for child care and don't pay attention to what they are getting, when schools drop the ball and when licensing agencies lack the authority to put unlicensed operators out of business swiftly and permanently.

Roberta Ward, assistant director for compliance of Maryland's Office of Child Care Licensing and Regulation, yesterday gave a grim picture of what investigators from her office have so far determined was going on at the Pressley house. Maryland's licensing regulations have stringent space, staffing and equipment provisions designed in part to get infants and children out quickly if there is a fire.

"With Mrs. Pressley the problem is first she was totally unlicensed. She had been contacted numerous times and would play little games. On top of all of that, it appears as if her basement was not fire-safe at all. There was a deadbolt lock on the door and there were bars on the windows. Our inspectors told me that as far as they could see there was one exit and that was not really available to those children. If there had been a fire, it would have been very, very dangerous." Ward said about 40 older children were in the basement while the babies were in an upstairs bedroom, "some in cribs, some in car seats, some on floors. That is an enormous fire evacuation problem."

Pressley, in a brief phone interview yesterday, said there were bars on two basement windows because her house has been broken into three times and she lives alone. She said she usually cares for "maybe ten or so" children and that there was a larger number that day because she was hosting a birthday party. "I wouldn't have no 50 some kids in the house," she said. "I didn't have no 13 babies." Asked how many she did have, she said, "I don't know at this moment." She said the only child she has now is her grandson.

Ward said state agencies have repeatedly tried to shut down Pressley's operation, and she began getting a new spate of complaints in March. "I can't tell you how many inspectors have knocked on the door in the past month and she's denied them entry." She said her office has no authority to get administrative search warrants. "We are fairly helpless. We don't have the power to remove children if they are in danger. We try to get other agencies involved if it looks like a really bad situation."

Ward said Pressley picked up children from their schools in a van and took them to her home, where they were kept on benches for naps and while they did their homework. Parents picked up children at the door and dropped them off at a porch. "They never saw where the children were. One father made the excuse that he had to go inside to go to the bathroom." She said he pushed open an upstairs door and saw the babies. He complained to her office and to the fire department. Another parent complained after she went inside the house one morning when Pressley wasn't there. "She went downstairs and saw these kids."

Ward says two people told her that they had informed the elementary schools that Pressley was not licensed and yet her name remained on their referral lists. "That bothers me a lot," Ward said. "The schools are not paying attention.

"I was told they were not allowed outside to play, and I think that's for obvious reasons," Ward said. She says one school-age girl told her parents that the older children were expected to help care for the babies. "Her parents told her not to do it.

"I see this stuff every day. I see what's going on. I see what's happening to these children and it's horrible. I feel helpless," Ward said.

The hope here is that President Bush, who is threatening to veto child-care legislation that would help eliminate these situations, is following this story, which is in his back yard. Because sooner or later, if this country doesn't produce a safe and reliable system of child care, there is going to be an inferno in one of these crowded, unlicensed traps that will do for the child-care movement what the death of 145 people in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911 did for the industrial safety movement.