The Persian Gulf War has left children from 17,500 families without the custodial single parent who usually cares for them or without both parents, according to Defense Department figures made available yesterday.

The recently collected data show that about 16,300 single parents have been deployed in Operation Desert Storm, as have 1,200 military couples with children, a Pentagon official said. The "vast majority" of the single parents in this category have custody of their children in peacetime.

While the Defense Department yesterday reiterated its official stance that the policy of sending parents to the gulf should not change and that the system for providing alternate child care to these children was working well, there were indications that the policy has become the subject of attention at high levels.

First Lady Barbara Bush told reporters on a flight from Washington to Indianapolis yesterday, "We think the Pentagon will come up with the right answer. But you know, we're in the middle of a very new time. We've got to work it all out."

Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), who has introduced a bill that would exempt single parents and one parent of a military couple from combat duty in the gulf, spoke Friday with national security adviser Brent Scowcroft on the matter. A similar bill in the House would allow the Pentagon to determine which parent received the exemption.

Scowcroft, according to a Heinz spokesman, "wanted to look over {Heinz's} material. He sounded perfectly willing to look at it."

A senior administration official said yesterday that the Defense Department had made "its strong objections known" to the White House, but the White House now is also aware of Barbara Bush's concerns about how the policy affects family life. "If she's concerned, we're all concerned," one official said.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday the administration is not considering any change in policy now, but added, "We are sensitive to the problem and open to the ideas on how to handle it." Fitzwater insisted his response was not a brushoff and that the administration would, in fact, entertain ideas on the issue, but not instigate a policy review of its own.

Barbara Bush's spokeswoman, Anna Perez, later said Mrs. Bush had discussed the subject with the president. Elaborating on Barbara Bush's public comments, Perez added, "I think she was just expressing her confidence in the Defense Department, that if there is a concern, they are carefully weighing that concern in the context of their mission . . . which has to take precedence."

Perez said Mrs. Bush believes if a policy "We've got to work it all out."

-- Barbara Bush

change were warranted, "it should come internally."

The military requires its personnel to have an up-to-date child care plan that designates a legal guardian and provider for dependents. Some unit commanders are diligent in making certain the designee is aware of and accepts the responsibility. In other units, and especially in the individual ready reserves, whose members do not participate in exercises, enforcement has been lax.

If the military determines that no guardian is available and accepts a service member's appeal for hardship, it can discharge the parent or place him or her at a job where they can care for their children.

The breadth of the Persian Gulf call-up, reaching as it does into the reserves, and the duration of the deployment may have caught even willing grandparents off guard, said Gail McGinn, the Pentagon's civilian director of familiy policy and support. "Some of the people who decided to become child care providers," she said, "didn't anticipate such long-term care."

Still, McGinn, and other Pentagon officials said the system is working. "We're somewhat amazed at how the system has worked," she said. "It has worked more than it didn't work."Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.