Washington area social workers say outdated local laws limit what they can do to protect the growing number of babies born to drug-addicted women.

While they wait for legislators to act, some social workers have done more than the law allows, and others have broadly interpreted the laws. They say they have to be aggressive to lessen misery and, in extreme cases, save lives. "We don't want a baby to die while the mother struggles with addiction," said Suzanne Chis, director of social services in Alexandria.

In Virginia, legislators are studying a proposal to require pregnant women who abuse drugs to seek treatment or face being charged with child abuse. Current laws in Virginia, Maryland and the District cover only actions that occur after birth.

"Right now, a mother is free to take such a child home and the state is powerless to intervene," said Democratic Maryland State Sen. Thomas M. Yeager, who has sponsored legislation to address the issue.

Maryland officials estimate that in 1989, between 2,200 and 7,400 babies were born to women on drugs. Virginia and District officials could not provide similar statistics, but Northern Virginia Social Service officials were notified of at least 100 cases in budget year 1990. Nationwide, between 100,000 and 375,000 babies are born each year with alcohol or illegal drugs in their systems, said officials from the American Bar Association and the National Association on Perinatal Addiction Research and Education.

Robert Horowitz, associate director of the Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law, said that in recent years, about a half-dozen states -- including Florida, Minnesota and Massachusetts -- have mandated that doctors, nurses and hospitals report such cases to social workers. Another half-dozen states are studying the issue.

"When {Virginia's} child abuse and neglect law was written in 1975, it wasn't designed to deal with this type of problem -- because this type of problem didn't exist," said Thomas Czelusta, senior assistant Virginia attorney general.

Social workers say they are not seeking the power to press criminal charges against pregnant drug abusers. Rather, they say, classifying a mother as abusive is a first step that can lead to placing the child in foster care.

Although they emphasize that their main goal is to keep families together, they said that putting pressure on a mother from the outset gives social workers leverage to force parents to care for their children properly.

In the meantime, local social workers are left with a dilemma. At least four area child protective services -- Arlington, Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel -- take more aggressive steps than state policies recommend. Workers from the three Maryland counties do more interviews and investigation than state officials say is appropriate.

In Alexandria, Chis said, her office also went beyond known state rules for a time, automatically classifying pregnant drug users as abusers, because "we were trying to cut down on the margin for error."

This year, however, Alexandria social workers pulled back after state officials told them their policy was not permitted under state guidelines. Now, social workers begin investigating a drug-using pregnant woman upon notification that a newborn has drugs in his system, searching for evidence of other examples of abuse or neglect.

Paulette Jackson, who supervises the Arlington County child protective services division, said her organization continues to classify such babies as victims of child abuse.

"We are on the front line," she said. "We know what's happening. It's hard for me. I try to be by the book. But when you come to this issue, we're facing something a little different. As an administrator and someone who is committed, I felt it was incumbent on me to take action."

Alison Marshall, legal counsel for the Association on Perinatal Addiction Research and Education, said the debate "gets at some very sensitive issues, not unrelated to some of those associated with the abortion debate" -- including a woman's right to privacy and the question of what rights a fetus has.

Marshall is involved in defending Kim Hardy, a Michigan woman charged with drug distribution after she gave birth to her son within hours of smoking crack. Hardy, whose case has drawn national attention, faces up to 20 years in prison. Marshall, who maintains that such cases raise health issues but should not result in criminal charges, said the country has only recently begun to grapple with the problem.

Dissecting an Alexandria case this year, in which state officials ruled that the city could not classify a woman whose child was born with cocaine in its system as a child abuser, capsulizes some of the arguments involved with the issue.

"We looked at illegal drugs in a child's system at birth as evidence of child abuse," Chis said. Cocaine and other drugs act as poison to a fetus's system and may affect development and have severe effects on the brain and nervous system, she said. Some of the babies are born prematurely and have a high risk of dying from sudden infant death syndrome.

State officials, who declined to comment on the specific case, said that fetuses are not considered children and so are not protected by the state's child protection law, Chis said.

When their initial position did not sway a state hearing officer, city officials suggested that the abuse had indeed occurred after birth. They argued that drugs had passed down the umbilical cord during the few moments after birth and before the cord was cut. The state held that it could not be proved that drugs were flowing through the umbilical cord after the birth.

Finally, Alexandria social workers suggested that in the absence of a policy on such babies, local officials should be allowed to implement their own rules. The state again said no, and the city dropped its attempt to treat the woman as a child abuser.

Such stories have created enough concern to reach the state legislatures of Maryland and Virginia. In Virginia, lawmakers are considering several proposals, including one that would require women who bear infants with drugs in their systems to seek substance abuse treatment and to provide properly for their infants, or face child abuse charges.

Yeager, who represents Prince George's and Howard counties, plans to submit a bill that would classify such newborns as victims of neglect, giving the state authority to act.

But even those sponsoring legislation say the issue is not addressed easily. "We never realized how complicated this would be," said Virginia Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William). "We know that alcohol and nicotine may be dangerous to {a} fetus -- what about those?"

Officials say they want to be sure that new laws will not scare women from seeking medical attention before they give birth. Officials also say that they have to ensure that the screening process for drugs in infants is not applied unfairly to minorities and the poor. Then there is the problem of finding the money for such programs in governments that already are financially squeezed.

Legislators say there is no point in requiring drug-abusing pregnant women to enter treatment programs if not enough are available.

"All this is immaterial if you don't have enough treatment programs," said Virginia Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-Alexandria).