The District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia were graded "D" yesterday in a House subcommittee "report card" on state efforts to force child support by absent parents.

But most states did not do much better: none was rated above "C." The U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement in the Department of Health and Human Services got a "C."

"The need for a more effective child support enforcement program is obvious," said Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources, which evaluated federal-state enforcement.

The report found that in fiscal 1989, the states lagged on establishing the paternity of children born out of wedlock; on collection rates for child support that was due; and on cost effectiveness in collecting money. They also did poorly on reducing the costs of welfare, the report said.

Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (Fla.), the subcommittee's senior Republican, said the absent parent "absolutely goes unscathed" in many cases because of poor state performance in establishing paternity, tracking down absent parents and making them pay child support.

Nevertheless, Downey said the program is valuable because state collections now total $5 billion a year; the number of paternities established is more than 300,000, and more than 1.5 million absent parents are located annually. But even so, he said, "in the spring of 1988 there were 9.4 million women living with their children but without the children's fathers. Of these women, only half had child support awards, and only one-fourth received their full child support payment. Moreover, the average child support payment was only about $7.50 a day."

The subcommittee gave Alabama the highest "grade point average" at 2.38, but that amounted to only a "C." Virginia, with a 1.25 points, ranked 31st and rated a "D." Maryland was 49th with a 0.63 average ("D") and the District 50th with a 0.50 average ("D"). Oklahoma, with an average of 0.38, was 51st, the only "F."

The report said that despite their low "grades," Virginia and the District had shown improvement. But it said Maryland had not.

Larry Jackson, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Social Services, said the subcommittee's method of grading states had "major flaws" that failed to consider "state-specific factors such as the poverty rate, the {welfare} benefit level, {and} whether the system is automated."

Irma Neal, the District's child-support administrator, said her office has "more than doubled its paternity establishments" in the last two years and settled 2,791 cases in 1990, a 50 percent increase over 1987.

A Maryland spokesman said the state's low "grade" was partially the result of state failure to provide certain information to the subcommittee.