The Children's Rights Council, a nonprofit membership group that advocates for noncustodial parents, yesterday put the District last in its ranking of the best states in which to raise a child.

The council has ranked the District 51st for the last three years, but analysts yesterday said that comparing a city to states that contain a mix of populations--including affluent suburbs where poverty levels are dramatically lower--is misleading.

Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire led the ranking released yesterday. Maryland was ranked seventh, up from 26th last year, while Virginia was ranked 23rd, down from 16th place in 1998.

The list was compiled from data in 10 demographic categories. David L. Levy, the council's president, said the list is intended to "encourage friendly competition among the states" toward improving conditions for children.

"Parenting is the key to success in a lot of these areas," Levy said. Many problems facing D.C. children are the result of fatherless homes, he said, adding that "money isn't the answer" and that states should design policies to encourage two-parent households.

That perspective drew criticism from analysts who say that parental influences are only one factor in determining a child's well-being.

The factors the ranking is based on don't consider "a number of complex variables that generate or relate to family outcomes: poverty, joblessness, ethnic and racial makeup of the population, populations that are vulnerable to economic changes that put stresses on families, and so on," said William Julius Wilson, a professor of social policy at Harvard University. "Because they don't address these issues, they come up with a simplistic index and draw conclusions that are misleading."

Data for five of the variables in the ranking were taken from the KidsCount data book, released annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based charitable and policy organization. The KidsCount book is widely used by social service agencies.

Recent data from that book rank New Hampshire, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Utah as the top five states in children's welfare. Virginia was 19th, Maryland 24th and the District 51st.

But William P. O'Hare, the foundation's KidsCount director, said that "it is unfair to compare a city to a state," and that KidsCount may omit the city from future rankings.

O'Hare said that figures on abuse and neglect cases cited by the council reflect variations in state policies and funding more than the level of children's welfare, and that jurisdictions vary widely in their reporting of juvenile arrests, which also were used in the rankings. Levy defended those variables, saying they are provided by the FBI and law enforcement agencies.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said he was concerned about the Children's Rights ranking. "We must do everything possible to turn around these disappointing results," he said, citing a $15 million initiative to support community-based programs for children.

The city also must orient its health-care system toward primary care for the uninsured and rebuild its public health services to help children, he said.