SOMEWHERE IN the District of Columbia's foster-care program there is a 13-year-old child whom the city's social service workers have not seen or been in touch with for more than six years.

There is also in the program a 15-year-old the courts said should be put up for adoption in 1972. According to files in the Department of Human Services, a recommendation that the child be adopted was put in the child's records in 1973. Since then, the department has not been in touch with the child, and no adoptive services, or other help, have been given the child by the city.

These examples are from a report by the District of Columbia's auditor. The report, based on a sample of 150 of the 2,000 children in the city's foster-care system, says the Department of Human Services is in such a confused state that it has no list of the children in its foster-care system; that it has no record of who its foster parents are; that it has no list of where its foster children are located; that it has no files on which social workers are responsible for which foster children; that it has no records on the legal status of its foster-care children; and finally that it makes overpayments of $46,000 per year to people who claim to be foster parents.

According to the report, 70 percent of the files on foster-care children in the District show no indication that the children they represent have been checked on by the city in the last three months. Part of the reason for this, according to the report, is that workers and supervisors in the city's foster-care system have a caseload that is three times the national average.

The District's auditor, Matthew S. Watson, concludes that the city's "failure to require adequate written records of its workers and staff make review of the quality, care and services provided [foster care] virtually impossible." Considering that so many of the children who are in the city's care have been abused or abandoned and subjected to other great damage, the city's negligence in looking out for their interests is truly shocking.

The Department of Human Services officials say that many of the failings cited in the report have been identified and corrected. But workers in their Residential Care Services Division privately acknowledge that the report is a true reflection of a bad state of affairs. "Everyone just does what they can and goes home . . . what else can you do?" said one social worker with foster-care responsibilities. "You can't fix up this mess by yourself."

No, you can't -- and the children caught up in it already may have suffered irreparable harm. But this isn't just a "mess" -- we're talking about children, not "caseloads" or "files" or "slots," and we're talking about care, not "resources." When you ask city hall, "Do you know where your children are?" the answer is a shrug.

In a bureaucracy, a month or two or 12 may not seem a long time to "correct discrepancies." But it is critical time in any childhood. How many more children will the city lose before enough bureaucrats recognize the cruelty of a business-as-usual attitude in foster care?