The Virginia Department of Social Services is responsible for licensing more than 650 assisted-living facilities; at any given time they can be home to nearly 35,000 vulnerable adults.

Often, those who live in assisted-living facilities have no family, or their families can no longer provide appropriate care, or they suffer from mental health problems. Their needs and the care they require vary widely, but what they have in common is that they cannot live on their own.

I am heartbroken by the suffering depicted in The Post's May 23-26 front-page series on Virginia's assisted-living facilities. My thoughts and prayers go out to those who have suffered.

It's important to note, however, that the overwhelming majority of staff members at assisted-living facilities make the best interests of their patients their top priority.

It also is important to note that the state has made important strides in recent years in the licensing of assisted-living facilities. Virginia has:

* Increased the number of inspectors. Nearly half are now nurses and mental health professionals.

* Implemented civil penalties.

* Installed a new information system that is improving the efficiency of inspectors.

* Developed mandatory pre-licensing training. Training also is provided to assisted-living facilities management and staff.

* Updated the protocol for facility closure and the curriculum for medication administration.

* Used the recently strengthened Adult Protective Services Act to increase the number of professions required to report suspected adult abuse, neglect or exploitation and to allow for an adult fatality-review team.

* Implemented a statewide 24-hour toll-free hotline to report suspected adult abuse.

We have made progress, but we continue to look for ways to improve our oversight.

Our department has been investigating best practices and developing recommendations to strengthen licensing requirements. A first draft will be ready in 30 to 45 days.

Our success or failure in making improvements will depend on how successfully those of us who care about this issue rise above our differences to come together to develop solutions. Among the more important issues that we must address concerning assisted-living facilities:

* Strengthening laws and regulations at a pace that will not put conscientious providers out of business.

* Improving and streamlining enforcement and appeal methods.

* Assisting the industry in coping with a shrinking and untrained workforce.

* Keeping consumers better informed so that they can make better choices when selecting an assisted-living facility.

* Establishing requirements to better protect special populations, such as residents with mental illness or retardation.

* Fully implementing the recently strengthened Adult Protective Services Act.

* Ensuring that assisted-living facilities that accept public money are held accountable.

* Finding ways to improve management practices and better determine appropriate staffing levels.

* Improving medication administration.

* Increasing education and training requirements and qualifications for administrators and staffs.

Our primary goal is to ensure the health and safety of residents of assisted-living facilities, but we can't stop there. These residents must be given the maximum opportunity to realize their potential for independence and to pursue a meaningful quality of life.

I look forward to working with the General Assembly, the state Board of Social Services, the assisted-living facilities industry, community leaders and the public in crafting standards, policy and legislation to raise the bar without putting assisted-living facilities that provide good care out of business.

I welcome this spotlight on Virginia's assisted-living industry. We must ensure that the spirits of our elderly and disabled adults are not broken and that they are living in secure environments. Only then can they enjoy the dignity and respect they deserve.

-- Maurice A. Jones

is deputy chief of staff to the governor and the commissioner of the Virginia

Department of Social Services.