At 30, Bridget Martin, accounting manager at Howard University Hospital, is one stubborn woman. You have to be, she said, to be a foster parent for the District.

Martin, who is single, has been a foster parent to a little boy since August. But she has nurtured "Buddy" since shortly after he was born at Howard 14 months ago and abandoned by a drug-abusing mother.

She got to know Buddy while serving as a hospital volunteer, and from the first day, "he was mine." When city social workers moved him to St. Ann's Maternity and Infant Home in Prince George's County, Martin followed. At first she visited twice a week; later, she persuaded St. Ann's to let her take Buddy to her Alexandria apartment for weekend visits.

When the city told her Buddy could no longer go home with her on weekends, she went to court to retain his visiting privileges. At the urging of her attorney, she then enrolled in foster parenting classes. Her desire to be a foster parent, she said, was inspired partly by the fact that she was adopted herself.

Throughout the District and its suburbs are homes like Martin's, places of refuge for this area's most fragile residents. Each day, men and women give up vacations and watch their savings accounts diminish to feed, bathe, discipline and play with children who are not their own.

But they do not think of themselves as heroes. They have other things to think about because their children often arrive with little more information than a name -- and frequently, with special needs.

Buddy, for example, has cerebral palsy. The extent of his disease was not clear at first, and Martin said she had to obtain his medical records from Howard and Children's Hospital in order to urge D.C. Child and Family Services Division to pay her more than the usual $350 monthly stipend.

The adjustment hasn't been made yet, she said, but she's not surprised.

Martin said the city still owes her money for the first few months she cared for Buddy. She took him to a day-care center for children with special needs that was not run by the city, she said. She had approval from her social worker but has not been reimbursed except for one partial payment, which she received only after calling the administrator of Child and Family Services. Buddy now goes to a center that is run by the city, which assumes the cost of his care there.

A petite but muscular woman who regularly shoots basketballs and rides a bike, Martin held Buddy steady as he jumped up and down on her dining room table one recent night after supper. As bits of undigested spaghetti and beets reappeared on her starched pink blouse, she wiped them up without losing a beat in the conversation. One would have thought she had been a mom for years.

The foster care system employs many decent people, she said, such as Buddy's social worker, who drove to Landover on a Sunday last fall to pick up two of Buddy's siblings and deliver them to Martin's apartment for Buddy's first birthday party.

But the city's inattention to her mounting financial problems have soured Martin, perhaps irreparably. The initial child-care costs for Buddy set her more than a month behind in paying her other bills, she said.

"If I didn't love this child as much as I do, I would have given him back," she added. Once Buddy leaves her for an adoptive home, "I'll never get back in the foster care system."