PRETEND FOR A MOMENT that you are a foster child in the District's care. If you are a typical foster child, here is what will happen to you, according to a report released by the D.C. Auditor's office last week: After entering foster care at age 3, you will remain with the foster care system for over 10 years. During that time, chances are that you will be shifted between institutions and foster homes at least three times. Three times you will be moved from place to place, breaking up relationships with adults, changing schools and friends. And all the while it won't be certain that the District's Department of Human Services knows that you are still out there. The department admits that it does not know how many children are in its foster care or where they all are. Even if the city does know where you are, there will be no plan for getting you back to your national parents or for seeking a stable couple who would adopt you.

The city and the courts are supposed to review a foster child's status at a hearing every two years. In fact the foster care system is so overloaded that the hearings are usually not held and the reviews are generally limited to a reading of the child's commitment papers. Even so, the city auditor's report estimates that 10 percent of the foster care children in the District are being held on commitments that have expired. For that 10 percent and most of the other children in foster care as well, there is no plan for what will happen in the future other than the continuation of foster care.

Getting a child out of the city's foster care system and up for adoption is now so rare that families seeking to adopt children are often forced to look to other cities and states. The decision on severing the child's relationship with its natural parents is an extremely difficult one. But the city's foster care system is not even putting it before the court where it is decided. Instead, the typical foster child is left in foster care to be shifted from one home to another with no plan for returning to a family. The reason for inaction is that the foster care system is overloaded and understaffed.

The city needs to begin a system of review for every foster care child -- concentrating on infants and younger children. The goal would be to get the children back to their natural parents or to stable, permanent homes within a reasonable period of time. The current situation where children remain in care for about seven years and are shifted from here to there like so much baggage should not be allowed to continue. Many of the children in foster care have been neglected or emotionally and physically abused by their natural parents. It is hardly the role of the city government to neglect and emotionally abuse these children a second time.