At 7:30 on a gray Friday morning, the Alive Child Development Center in Alexandria is already jumping to life. Children zoom trucks over the carpet and swirl imaginary broomsticks in the air, singing about a witch "stirring and stirring and stirring her broom."

In the midst of the noisy, laughing chaos of 45 children between the ages of 2 1/2 and 5, center director Ruby Tucker sits in her office and talks about fear.

Tucker says she used to feel uneasy when she encountered unfamiliar faces in the corridor or strange cars in the parking lot. But since recent reports of child abuse by day-care workers around the country have begun to surface, Tucker says, her biggest fear has been not of potential abusers who might slip in the back door, but of those who might slip through her job application process.

"It's frightening," she said. "As a person who is responsible for hiring people, I don't even know what mechanism you could use that could guarantee you" employes with backgrounds free of abuse.

Other area day-care center directors, the state and regional officials who license the centers, and the parents who depend on them share Tucker's dilemma. As they attempt to address the problem, they are confronted by an erratic patchwork of rules set and enforced by various state and local agencies, a growing number of day-care centers, shrinking federal funds for agencies that license them and some sticky civil liberties questions.

Both Virginia and the District prohibit officials from checking for criminal records of prospective day-care employes. In Maryland, operators of in-home day-care centers with fewer than seven children must undergo police checks, but workers in out-of-home centers need not submit to criminal checks, according to state officials.

In January, the Virginia General Assembly requested a study on missing children and created an advisory task force on the subject. The group's recommendations, recently submitted to the state attorney general's office, include mandatory prison sentences after a second conviction of child abuse, the creation of a statewide computer file on missing children and more stringent probes into the backgrounds of day-care employes.

In Maryland, the two-year-old Governor's Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect also has recommended a crackdown on day-care regulation. The group's proposals include consolidating day-care licensing under one agency and conducting criminal background checks on applicants for child-care jobs.

Reports of sexual abuse of children in day-care centers are a relatively new phenomenon, said Mary Jane Edlund, director of day-care licensing for the Maryland Department of Health. In the past six months, 10 incidents have been reported in Baltimore and six others recorded around the state.

Other states already have launched tougher screening of day-care employes. California, which drew national attention in March when six workers in a Manhattan Beach preschool center were charged with 115 counts of child molesting, has conducted fingerprint checks on current and prospective day-care workers for more than a year.

In New York, where sexual-abuse allegations have been made at four city-funded day-care centers, the state social services department began last month to check prospective child-care employes for records of abuse.

Tucker recently changed her job application forms to include the question, "Have you ever been convicted of child abuse?"

She knows that no one is likely to answer yes. "But at least you've asked the question," she said. "At least you've attempted to try to screen."

A House of Representatives select committee on children, youth and families concluded in a September report that day-care centers in the United States are licensed according to widely diverse rules that are enforced by various state, county and local agencies. While all states require some sort of license for child-care facilities, people who care for children in their homes often do not have to register or meet specific standards.

"The bottom line is that the child care market is poorly regulated," the committee's report concluded.

Virginia's minimum standards for licensed child care centers state that "no person convicted of a crime involving child abuse, child neglect, or moral turpitude shall be a day-care facility owner, operator or employe."

But the regulations do not say how applicants should be screened, and the state prohibits officials from conducting criminal background checks of day-care employes. Usually, Stevens said, the application asks about any prior records of child abuse, with the answers depending on applicants' honesty.

Carol Hendler, business manager of the Clarendon Child Care Center in Arlington, says that is not enough. "What we decided to do is to ask people to sign a form saying they are of sound moral character -- which is almost a joke," she said. "You feel so helpless."

"It's a knotty issue -- to know what is possible to do, what is helpful to do, what is affordable to do," said Carolynne Stevens, director of the licensing division of the Virginia Department of Social Services. "The fundamental issue is, how far can you go to protect children without running roughshod over the rights of people" who apply for day-care jobs, she said.

The Maryland Governor's Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect will recommend to the governor that all applicants for child-care jobs undergo background checks by state police, according to the group's chairman, Dr. Charles Shubin. The results would be filed with the health department, Shubin said.

Jerry Boyd, a parent and member of the Virginia Task Force on Missing Children, said the swelling demand for day-care centers and rising number of complaints about them has made regulation more difficult.

There are no current national statistics on the number of children in day care, but census data show that the need for day care is swelling as more women join the work force and climbing divorce rates leave more children in single-parent households. By 1990, the House committee said in its report, "there are going to be many more young children in need of care, and parents will be less available than ever before to care full time for them."

Even the proponents of criminal checks on day-care employes point out that the added screening would still leave significant gaps.

Maryland Assistant Attorney General Sarah Kaplan said that because 95 percent of people charged with child abuse do not have records, doing police checks "could be putting a lot of time and money into something that would not really help children."

"Those that are convicted are an important number but a very small number," said Stevens of the Virginia social services department. "Your fear is the one who hasn't been identified yet."

The blame when abuse does occur is often subtly twisted into a burden of guilt on parents. Jane Angrist, a social worker in Alexandria's Department of Social Services, said many mothers are beginning to feel that "'either I shouldn't have gone to work or I should have done a better job picking a center.'"

"There's a lot of paranoia taking place," said Oretha Cole, owner of Modern Day Care in Takoma Park. She said some children are beginning to learn about good touching versus bad touching, but when they tell their parents that 'so-and-so ouched me,' the parents panic. "Most of the teachers are afraid to cuddle the children and don't even want to clean them when they have an accident," Cole said.

Cole was one of several day-care directors who asked the Prince George's Police Safety Education Division to expand its in-school antiabuse program to parents of very small children.

Parents may be even more concerned about day-care workers who are male, according to Jane McMillan, the former director of the Child Care Center at Catonsville Community College. "One of our four teachers is male, and we feel he is being much more carefully scrutinized by parents ." At one point, McMillan said, the man refused to change diapers or take the children to the bathroom for fear that he might be accused of fondling a child.

"I'm trying to get Zakee in the habit of talking to me about his day," said Veronica Nichols of her 4-year-old son, who attends the Alive center. "I'm also in a practice of telling him, 'If someone tries to make you do something to them that makes you feel uncomfortable, say no.' "

Among the handful of states that have already stepped up screening of day-care workers, New York now requires the state's 1,800 licensed day-care centers to have prospective employes checked against the Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment. The check shows whether the state has substantiated a report of child abuse or neglect against a person in the last 10 years.

Terrance McGrath, spokesman for New York's Social Services Department, said 3,200 day-care job applicants have been screened since the law took effect; 15 of those had substantiated reports of child abuse against them.

Some argue that such checks "could present civil liberties concerns" because police reports might include personal information that would then be available through health departments or other agencies' files. Marjorie K. Smith, a lobbyist with the Maryland Committee for Children, said she favors more thorough reporting and recording ot child abuse incidents instead.

"You're balancing rights here," said Shubin of the Maryland task force. " It's the rights of the employe versus the rights of the kid. We think kids deserve a better shake than they've been getting."

Shubin and others pressing for stricter day-care regulation say the prospect of a criminal check might be enough to deter potential abusers.

"I think we're going to discourage people from getting into the business if they know their dark background is going to have some light shed on it," said Albert C. Eisenberg, an Arlington County Board member who has favored more stringent requirements for day-care centers.

Without such laws, day-care directors must rely on references, detailed questioning, existing requirements for education and experience, and, finally, their intuition, to screen prospective employes. "I've always hired people on my instinct -- my gut feeling. I hire parents, mothers," said Catherine Miller, for 11 years the director of Natural Day Care in the district.

Lacking more stringent laws, said Tucker, day-care directors are left to grope for an intangible sense of whether an applicant can be trusted.

"You have to look at potential abuse like any other concern, like asking people if they believe a child has certain rights," she said. "If you ask that, you can kind of tell from how they answer if they're someone you want. I just don't know how you'd find out for sure."