Dozens of parents packed an Arlington courtroom yesterday, taking time off from work to passionately defend their day-care provider, Minh-Hien Bui. They had come to convince Judge Benjamin Kendrick that "Mommy Hien," as they call her, should not be sent to jail.

Bui faced the possibility of spending up to three years behind bars after police arrived one day last summer and counted 42 children in the four-bedroom North Arlington house where she was licensed to look after no more than five children. Police had been called when an infant in Bui's care stopped breathing. The child later died; Bui was not charged in the death.

In September, Bui, 43, admitted to exceeding the county's limits on children at family day-care homes and pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges, including reporting to local authorities only a fraction of the $242,144 she made in 1998.

Yesterday, parent after parent testified that their children came home from Bui's house often cleaner, happier and with better manners than when they had left them with her. Kendrick then gave Bui a one-year sentence on each of the three charges, suspending all the jail time.

"There's no question in this court's mind that she loved every one of those children," Kendrick said. As the judge stepped down from the bench, the courtroom erupted into applause, ending an emotional hearing that at times seemed more like a child-care hearing on Capitol Hill.

Commonwealth's Attorney Richard E. Trodden acknowledged the outpouring of emotion. But he said, "It's not unusual for a parent to feel good things about someone who has done good things for their child." He had argued that a "modest" punishment was called for to deter others from ignoring day-care regulations.

In Virginia, any home provider caring for more than five children needs a state license, and a home provider can't take in more than 12 children without converting the house into a day-care center.

Because Bui knew in advance about visits from the child-care office, Trodden said, inspectors would see a home that was far less crowded than usual. On the day of one scheduled inspection, he said, Bui lied to most of her clients that she would be closed because of a doctor's appointment.

He added that the parents' testimony was in "stark contrast" to conclusions drawn by another client of Bui's, Justine Fitzgerald, who had been assured by Bui that her 5-month-old son would be one of five children and the only baby. Fitzgerald, 31, who attended the hearing but did not testify, criticized the judge's ruling afterward.

"I'm afraid this sends a message that it's okay to put kids at risk," said Fitzgerald, a lawyer. "I worry about other home day-care centers in Arlington. They would feel free to violate the terms of their license. And Arlington County will tell them that's great."

Timothy J. McEvoy, Bui's attorney, acknowledged that his client cared for 32 children on a typical day. But he said that she was not motivated by greed and that most of her income was used to pay five assistants and improve her operation.

"I didn't know how to say no," Bui told the judge from the defense table. "I took the children into my home like they were mine." Nodding to her own two young boys in the front row, she pleaded, "Don't take me away from my kids."

Some parents cried during the hearing, embraced Bui warmly and thanked her from the witness stand for taking good care of their children. One mother said that Bui saved her child's life by administering CPR during a seizure. Another showed the judge a special chair that Bui and her husband had made for her disabled child.

All said that they knew Bui cared for many more than five children, but that they believed their children were safe because Bui employed enough assistants. They talked about the difficulties of finding good child care and how delighted they were to find Bui.

"Sometimes we think Ms. Bui did a better job than we did," testified William B. Lawson Jr., a lawyer and neighbor who left his daughter in Bui's care.

County officials first learned that Bui had too many children on June 16, when a baby in her care, 4-month-old Elizabeth "Lily" Heavey, stopped breathing and police came to investigate.

Lily died later that day at Arlington Hospital. The precise cause of her death has not been determined by authorities, and after meeting with the medical examiner, Lily's parents concluded that their daughter likely died of sudden infant death syndrome.

Kendrick concurred with that assessment yesterday and said there was most likely nothing Bui could have done to save the child.

CAPTION: Minh-Hien Bui often had more than 30 children in her Arlington home, although she was licensed for only five.