One out of every four children in the District placed in foster care becomes an adult without ever being adopted, according to a report issued yesterday.

The Council for Court Excellence reviewed more than 1,700 abuse and neglect cases between 1998 and 2003. The nonprofit organization, which focuses on justice issues, found that some children are spending less time in foster care and that the child welfare system is improving.

As of April 30, about 2,800 District children in foster care, and nearly half were 13 and older, according to the D.C.-based Center for the Study of Social Policy. While some states end foster care at age 18, children in the District can legally remain until they are 21 years old.

Brenda Donald Walker, interim director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, acknowledged at a briefing for reporters held by the nonprofit that the foster children had not been well-served.

"We have so many kids in our system because of years of bad practice," she said. "They have so much trauma and in all too many cases, we have made them worse. We have to change that."

The agency was placed under federal receivership in 1995 and remains under court supervision.

Donald Walker said that placing older foster children in permanent homes has been one of her goals since taking over as interim director in April. Last week, she said she signed adoption orders for three foster children who were 14, 16 and 19 years old. The agency is looking to emulate a successful adoption program in Massachusetts.

The 20-page report also examined the actions of the Office of the Attorney General, which prosecutes child abuse and neglect cases, and the D.C. Superior Family Court, where judges hold hearings and make decisions on such cases.

The report praised the District for returning children to their families in less than a year when it was safe to do so, an improvement since 2000, when it took two years.

Federal guidelines implemented in 2000 set strict timetables for a child's length of stay in foster care.

The report also noted that the number of children placed with permanent guardians has increased, from 13 in 2002 to 113 children last year.

The creation of a Family Court in 2001 to handle child abuse and neglect cases separately has been beneficial to children and families because one judge is assigned to a case from beginning to end, the report concluded.

Doing that "promotes consistency and more informed decision-making," said Elliott S. Hall, a lawyer and chairman of the board of the Council for Court Excellence.

The report, the second issued by the nonprofit, is funded by Congress, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others.