As Carol and Joe Stevens of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., absorbed the news coming out of Romania last winter, their hearts broke.

They heard of tens of thousands of children abandoned because their parents couldn't afford to feed them, of children infected with the AIDS virus by contaminated blood transfusions, of institutions where babies were lucky to get their diapers changed three times a day.The Stevenses decided to go to Romania and rescue a child.

"After hearing of the conditions in which abandoned children were living in Romania, I felt that this was the place to go to complete our family," said Carol Stevens in a telephone interview.

"We were ready to adopt a child, and we realized that it was too important a thing to just sit home and wait and let everything get straightened out first. We were on a plane within two weeks of (Romanian President Nicolae) Ceausescu's execution."

In February, five weeks after they arrived in Romania, the Stevenses became one of the first American families to adopt a Romanian child. They brought Susan Maria home when she was 7 months old. She had been turned over to an orphanage by her mother and spent three months lying in a crib in a stifling room, with little human contact.

News of Susan Maria's adoption spurred a nationwide explosion of interest in the adoption of Romanian children by Americans.

"To call it hysteria would be an understatement," said Anna Maria Merrill of the International Concerns Committee for Children, a group based in Boulder, Colo., that collects information about international adoptions.

"We had people call us and say, "We've got our air tickets, and a pocketful of cash, and we're leaving Wednesday. What do we do once we get there?"'

In fact, several hundred Americans have flown to Romania in hopes - most not yet realized - of adopting a child. Thousands of others have bombarded adoption agencies and the Stevenses with requests for information about adopting. The State Department has even set up a computer-answered hot line to handle the inquiries.

"I have talked to one person who has over 20,000 letters in hand from people who are interested in adopting Romanian children," said William Pierce, director of the National Committee for Adoption, a Washington adoption advocacy organization.

But bringing children out of Romania and into American homes has proved to be more difficult than expected. Only about three dozen Romanian children have been adopted by American families this year.

In June, the Romanian government stopped all inter-country adoptions, even those already in the works. The government recently approved new procedures for international adoptions, but no one here yet has firm details about what conditions adoptive families must meet.

"There's great interest, but I'm not sure there's great potential," said Susan Freivalds, executive director of Adoptive Families of America, an adoption support group in Minneapolis. "Basically, it's going to work only for families who have lots of time and lots of money."

Said Carolyn Riske, who runs the St. Louis-based Adoption Resource Center, which placed 125 foreign-born children in American homes last year:

"There's interest, but no action. I know there are kids there, but my gut reaction is that it's the Western Europeans who are going to get them, if they're allowed out."

The explosion of interest in adopting Romanian children was caused by two factors, adoption advocates say: the shortage of white children available for adoption in the United States, and sympathy aroused by the large number of Romanian children abandoned as a result of Ceausescu's social policies.

International relief agencies say Romanian children's homes provide shelter for as many as 50,000 orphans and abandoned children, often in deplorable conditions.

"There's always been a lot of interest in humanitarian adoptions in this country," Pierce said. "That's how the Korean adoptions got started here, at a time when there were plenty of white babies available for adoption."

Many of the people who have inquired about Romanian adoptions were apparently attracted by the apparent ease with which the Stevenses obtained and adopted a child; it took just five weeks. But Carol Stevens noted that she speaks Romanian and has relatives in Romania who helped intercede, which speeded the process.

And the Stevens' adoption experience was not without heartache. A blood test performed on a second child whom they wanted to adopt indicated that he might be infected with the AIDS virus, making him inadmissible to the United States. Before they left Romania, the Stevenses helped arrange his transfer to France, where Carol Stevens says he has been adopted.

Indeed, the prevalence of pediatric AIDS cases in Romania makes the prospect for wide-scale adoptions dim, at least for infants, adoption experts say.

"We are not going to be placing infants," said Heino Erichsen, executive director of Los Ninos International Adoption Centers in Woodlands, Texas. The organization has placed three Romanian children in American homes and hopes to place many more.

"Until a child is 18 months of age, you simply cannot establish firmly that he doesn't have AIDS," Erichsen said.

Beckey Panagos of St. Charles, Mo., president of International Families, hopes that the Americans who are rushing to adopt Romanian children have thought through "the implications of raising a child from another culture."

"We think it's very important to keep an adopted child in touch with his original culture," she said.

Carol Stevens hopes that more Americans succeed in adopting Romanian children, but she also hopes that many more decide to help Romanian children in other ways.

She set up the Help the Children of Romania Fund when she returned to the United States. Its first project is to help Romania rid its donor blood supply of the AIDS virus to prevent further infections of children. The organization also has collected clothes and shoes to send to children's homes there.

"I hope that Americans will not forget the children who are not adoptable - the children who are sick, the children who are in intact, but poor, family units and the children who are older and not as sought-after as adoptees," she said.