The head of the District agency responsible for finding adoptive homes for children in foster care said yesterday that attorneys for those children often wait to start adoption proceedings until social workers find homes -- and social workers can't find homes until attorneys start adoption proceedings.

The resulting impasse can tie children up in adoption proceedings for years, said Evelyn Andrews, chief of the D.C. Children and Family Services Division, part of the Department of Human Services.

Andrews was the first government witness in a lawsuit filed against the District by the American Civil Liberties Union. It alleges that the city violates the rights of the roughly 2,200 abused and neglected children in its child welfare system by failing to place them in adoptive homes or to reunite them with their families.

The resulting foster care limbo causes permanent emotional harm, said psychiatrists and foster parents who testified earlier on behalf of the ACLU.

"I've seen it go on for two or three years at a time," Andrews testified, responding to a question from Assistant D.C. Corporation Counsel Eugene Adams about how long adoption proceedings can take. "The attorneys may not want to file for termination of parental rights because there are no adoptive homes. But we can't recruit homes until the children are legally free" for adoption.

Some results of that Catch-22 are described in court papers. Culled from the division's files and containing findings largely undisputed by the District, the papers describe children who spent years shuttling from one foster home to another after being abused or abandoned by their parents. Some of the children became suicidal, including one 8-year-old boy who put himself in a trash can and asked to be thrown away because he hated himself.

Andrews's testimony marked the first time that division officials have presented their side of the case, although two social workers with the agency testified last week on behalf of the ACLU.

Although her testimony differed in some details from that of the social workers -- particularly when it came to caseload statistics -- Andrews's description of the agency roughly matched theirs. One social worker, Chainie Scott, had said that her caseload is about 90 families, and said that is a common caseload. Andrews said her figures showed the average caseload for social workers is about 43 families.

But like the social workers, Andrews said the division is hampered by the failure of city agencies to provide adequate housing and mental health services, and has suffered from "severe staffing shortages."

Later in the day, Andrews's boss, Elizabeth Parker, elaborated on that theme, testifying that of a total of 239 positions in the division, 107 are now vacant -- a 45 percent vacancy rate. Forty-eight people have been hired by the division since the last fiscal year, she said.

The ACLU lawsuit centers on an assertion that children in foster care are victims of bureaucratic logjams preventing those abandoned by their parents from ever finding new homes.

ACLU attorneys sought to make a connection between snags in the adoption process and understaffing at the agency, suggesting that overworked social workers do not always keep case files up to date. Without documentation of the natural parents' abandonment, said ACLU attorney Marcia Lowery, many court-appointed attorneys for children lack the proof they need to persuade judges to take the final step of removing children from their families.

Andrews disputed Lowery's interpretation, saying the city has provided the needed information to the children's attorneys. "It's been mostly the childrens' attorneys who have not followed through," she said.

One District lawyer not connected to the case who specializes in adoption said in an interview yesterday that lawyers may decide not to initiate legal proceedings for many reasons -- for instance, if a child is severely handicapped. But the lawyer, Mary Pat Toups, in part disputed Andrews's account. She said that it is common for lawyers to file for termination of parental rights before an adoptive home is found, and that the lack of such a home by itself would not justify delay.

"I've heard that statement made time and time and time again" by city officials, Toups said, referring to the impasse Andrews described. "In my caseload, that is not true."