Paulette Saunders is asking people to do something very hard: to take children they don't know--children who may be hard to handle or physically ill--into their homes and care for them as their own. And they must do it knowing that at some point they will have to say goodbye.

Saunders, a foster care recruiter with For Love of Children, is making her pitch on a Sunday afternoon in the basement of New Bethel Baptist Church, an 800-member congregation in Northwest Washington's Shaw neighborhood. Only nine people have stayed after services to hear her out.

Few eyes are dry when Saunders finishes her passionate speech. Yet only three people sign up even to hear more about being a foster parent--just the first step in a long process before a child is placed in a foster home. For Saunders, the response is disappointing. But she's getting used to it.

The number of foster children in the District (now 3,334) and across the nation (about 530,000) is rising rapidly, even as fewer adults show a willingness to take such children into their homes. As of this week, 1,034 families make homes for D.C. foster children.

Today, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) plans to announce a year-long, high-visibility campaign to persuade more District residents to become foster parents. The mayor is expected to tell the tale of his own upbringing as a foster child, hoping to inspire others to recognize the rewards involved in foster care and adoption.

In addition to the growing gap between available children and willing foster parents, the mayor and recruiters such as Saunders face another challenge: The District's child welfare system has long been notorious for poor administration, neglect and other problems that make foster parents' work more difficult.

Recently, nearly 100 parents threatened to return their foster children because the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency was several months and millions of dollars behind in payments to parents and day-care providers. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that District foster children stay in the system more than twice as long as the national average.

From Bowie to Fauquier County, scores of recruiters visit churches, pass out pamphlets in malls and attend civic meetings to persuade people to become foster parents to the region's more than 5,640 foster children. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Northern Virginia Foster and Adoptive Care Training System have launched a campaign to recruit new foster parents.

"There isn't a jurisdiction in the country that has the numbers and types of foster parents that they need," said Kathy Barbell, director of foster care at the Washington-based Child Welfare League.

Even in the best of circumstances, choosing to become a foster parent is a wrenching process. Most people agree that taking in a foster child is an important thing to do. Actually deciding to turn your life over to that level of uncertainty is another matter entirely.

Samuel Graves and his wife attended Saunders's presentation at New Bethel. He was, he said later, moved by her words. What she was urging, he said, is "very needed, especially in the black community."

A 58-year-old retired U.S. Park Police officer, Graves is a trustee at New Bethel and the sort of person social workers might hope to attract to the program.

He is also honest about his reservations. "Everyone is not cut out for that," he said. "I don't have the patience. It would be very hard for me to do." His daughter is now 30. "I don't feel like raising any more kids."

Could he be persuaded?

"You never know. A lot of the things you say you're not going to do, you do." But, he said, "unless the Lord changes my heart, I'm not leaning in that direction."

Feeling a Kinship Although foster parents come from all stations of life, social workers have a profile of those most likely to volunteer. Most foster parents of D.C. children are middle- or lower-middle-class African Americans, Saunders said.

"Traditionally, working-class parents are more exposed to foster care from neighbors and relatives," said Barbell, of the Child Welfare League. Foster care officials speculate that people closer to financial and social hardship feel more kinship with those who are needy.

Foster parents of D.C. children are often religious. Many District foster parents are relatives of the children they take in. Seventy-two percent of the parents live in Maryland, often after having moved from the District to Prince George's County.

Across the country, 59 percent of children in foster care are children of color. In the District, most are African American boys, Saunders said.

The 175,000 foster parents nationwide are typically white couples in their mid- to late forties, Barbell said. Some studies indicate that 40 percent of the parents drop out of the program within a year. Among their reasons: children with behavioral problems, government payments not made, bad relationships with the birth family, lack of respite care--care for the children when the foster parents need a break--and other kinds of agency support.

Nichelle Moorefield, an African American single mother and manager at the Department of Education, took three girls into her Alexandria home this year after they were taken from their mother--a relative of Moorefield's--who had neglected them.

Moorefield was a homeless teenage mother who was able to turn her life around. She wants to teach the children about overcoming obstacles. But her experience has been hard.

"I feel like I'm out here by myself," Moorefield said. "I spend hours on the phone trying to get services for the children."

Social workers say that simply loving the children isn't enough. "Recruiting and saying all these children need is love is a lie, and that's why people burn out and leave the foster care system," Barbell said. "The children need a whole bunch more than love. They often have special and extraordinary needs."

Kimberly and Patrick Hall, who live in Bowie and already had two daughters, decided this year to take in an abandoned baby, despite their concerns about what problems he might develop.

The Halls were recruited by the nonprofit One Church, One Child, which operates in 34 states and tries to get at least one family in each black church to adopt or become foster parents.

"You're coming into it blind," Patrick Hall said. But the little boy is healthy, and they're in love with him. The Halls are moving to adopt.

A Pitch for Help Saunders's gentle voice draws people in, connecting her audience to the children who need them. She talks about babies born at D.C. General and abandoned in their incubators; little girls sexually abused in their bedrooms; tiny boys bruised from head to toe by drug-addicted parents, who may themselves have been abused; girls who got pregnant in foster care; teenagers passed from home to home until their childhood is gone.

The biological parents may be incarcerated, homeless, mentally ill or struggling with drugs. Alcohol and drug abuse are factors in more than 75 percent of the cases.

Saunders knows what it's like to struggle. She grew up poor, in a family of seven sisters and three brothers. They lived in a segregated area of Asbury Park, N.J. At 19, she was unmarried and had a baby.

"We had so little," she said. "But my family never turned anyone away who needed a roof over their head. We may not have had all the bedding, clothing or food we needed, but there was always enough to share."

Saunders left a decades-long career as a nursery school educator last summer and joined the nonprofit For Love of Children, one of 16 D.C. groups that helps the city recruit foster parents. Saunders and her husband have considered taking in a foster child themselves, but for now their extra bedroom is being used by a relative.

Something as simple as not having that extra room is a common problem for people who might make good foster parents, Saunders said, noting that a person who would open the door to a stranger is the same person who welcomes relatives or friends in need.

A Long Road The process of getting a child can take six to eight months. Saunders worries about people who get discouraged and drop out. But social workers are wary of placing children in bad homes or letting people slip through who might think of foster children as merely a way to make money.

D.C. foster parents are supposed to be paid a stipend of $431 a month per child--and up to $1,000 for children with medical difficulties--along with the costs of day care.

But that didn't happen for several months recently, partly because the child welfare agency ran out of money, but also because of computer glitches, according to Ernestine F. Jones, the court-appointed receiver for the child welfare agency. Jones said a new computer will prevent future problems.

Saunders said the question that arises most is: How long will I have the child? City social workers try to return children to a relative or biological parent. In the past, children could be shuffled among foster homes for years. But a new law requires welfare agencies to find children permanent homes quickly.

As she packs up her pamphlets and display board at New Bethel, Saunders wonders whether she was good enough. Did she use the right words? Did she connect with anybody?

She remembers the tall military man who, along with his wife, signed her sheet. He and his wife have a little girl, and afterward he talked about his daughter running to greet him when he came home. Some children don't have anyone to run to, he said.

Maybe she connected with them. Maybe this family will go through the weeks of training and pass the home inspection and criminal background check. Maybe they will take a child.