A Maryland appeals court has upheld a little-known 1916 state law requiring children to provide financial support for their destitute parents. The ruling could throw state and federal aid programs for the elderly into turmoil, welfare officials said yesterday.

Matthew Tayback, director of the Maryland Office on Aging, said the state and federal policies that require welfare officials to consider only the financial status of a prospective welfare recipient when deciding whether to give aid.

After meeting with the state Commission on Aging to discuss the question yesterday, Tayback said that two members of the state legislature have agreed to sponsor bills that would strike the old parent-support law from the books.

The law upheld by the Court of Special Appeals ruling Monday requires that children who earn enough money to support a destitute parent must do so or face criminal penalties.

The ruling came in the case of two Baltimore County women who had been found guilty of failure to support their 88-year-old mother. While reversing their conviction -- holding that the daughters were unable to earn sufficient money to contribute to their mother's support -- the court also upheld the parent-support law.

News of the ruling astounded officials who deal with programs for the aged. "I thought they did away with that years ago," said Donald Wassmann, director of Montgomery County's Division of Elder Affairs.

"We did away with the notion of responsibility relationship in Maryland about 15 years ago," agreed Melinda B. Orlin, acting dean of the school of social work and community planning at the University of Maryland.

"There is no evidence to show that you can force people into these responsibilities," she added. "We have not been notably successful where we have interjected jail into family relations."

According to Charles C. Putnam, the director of the Medical Assistance Policy Administration of Maryland's Medicaid program, federal policies require only that one spouse support another and that parents support dependent children.

If agencies were forced to follow the parent-support law, it could greatly delay the granting of aid to elderly persons or prevent them from obtaining aid while going through a lengthy court battle to force children to support them, officials said.

State Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery) said she and Del. Pauline Menes (D-Prince George's) -- both members of the commission -- had agreed yesterday to sponsor legislation to kill the support law.

Schweinhaut said she had introduced similar legislation in the late 1950s, but was told by welfare officials that they could drop the law through administrative action.

Schweinhaut said the "tragedy" of the law is that welfare officials used to encourage parents to go to court to seek support from their children. But the parents usually refused, she said.

"It was just a mess," Schweinhaut said.