THOUSANDS OF children in this city have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. These children, nearly half of whom are under five years old, have become the responsibility of the courts and the Department of Human Services. Most are placed under foster care, where some will remain for years. Enactment of legislation by the city in 1977 and by the federal government in 1980, however, encouraged efforts toward the goal of permanent placement of foster children. Recently, an interagency conference chaired by Judge Gladys Kessler of the D.C. Superior Court assessed the city's progress toward that goal.

The government has few responsibilities as important as caring for children who are in such desperate need, but the task is a formidable one. More than a quarter of these children have been removed from parents with emotional or drug problems. Twenty-one percent have simply been abandoned, and 16 percent have been physically or sexually abused. Moving them from one foster home to another throughout their childhood is obviously extremely hard on the children. But finding alternatives to foster care requires creative thinking and a great deal of case-by-case planning. Judge Kessler says that the leadership of the Department of Human Services is meeting the test.

The department tries to keep families together, and to do things that will make it possible to return children to their parents. Day care, counseling, emergency financial assistance, and so forth are all being used to good effect. Permanent foster care in a single home is often a reasonable plan, particularly for older children, and the District is experimenting with subsidized guardianship in some of these cases. Adoptions are also desirable alternatives, but unfortunately, and in spite of available subsidies, the number of adoptions from foster care is low. Last year only 66 of these children were placed in permanent homes through adoption.

The courts have made a number of changes to improve procedures involving dependent children. Individual cases are now reviewed every six months, not by studying files, as had been the practice, but by holding hearings with all interested parties in attendance. Lawyers are now appointed to represent both the child and the parent, and they are paid at the same rate as attorneys in criminal court. New training programs have been established for these attorneys and for judges, too, and the latter are well attended, even at 7:30 in the morning.

Problems remain: the special needs of teen-age parents, the difficulties of adolescents moving from foster care to independent living and, especially, the shortage of adoptive parents. But the goal of permanent placement is the right one, and progress is being made.