IN A side room off a children's ward at a Kowloon hospital, lined up in cheerless metal cots, lie Hong Kong's forgotten children. Aged between three months and three years, some have been there since birth - victims of their parents' prejudices and a lack of resources that means there are no places for them in special homes. No one visits the children other than hospital staff, who admit they are too busy to do little more than feed them and treat their various ailments. They are handicapped in a city that has little time for flawed children. They spend their days staring at the ceiling, or at each other, through the bars of their cots, while the limited potential they possess steadily ebbs away. The hospital does its best, given its limited resources, but the people who should care - the parents - don't give a damn. ''These are the children who have slipped through the net,'' said a Kwong Wah hospital worker who revealed the existence of the children. ''Once abandoned children get older they are supposed to leave institutional care, but the older ones end up staying in the homes for years and then there isn't any room for the younger ones.'' Hospital staff are unhappy with the situation. ''Things are getting worse,'' another health worker said. ''When I came to the hospital there was only one of these children. Now there are five or more.'' The children suffer from a variety of handicaps, some of which require medical supervision or special feeding. Places for such children are rare. According to the Social Welfare Department 18 ''special centres'' house 987 children with different degrees of disability. The pressure on places means some of the children have spent all of their short lives in an austere twilight zone. Dr Jackson Ho Che-shun, the hospital's consultant paediatrician, said: ''They don't usually have people to visit them. ''It might be nice to have some voluntary workers to give them some stimulation but the nurses just don't have enough time.'' In the corridor are two supporting wooden chairs, made by hospital staff. Sometimes, when the nurses have time, they put the children in them to enjoy a change of scene - but the corridor is as far as they get. ''We have no facilities for these children. The normal children's ward has toys and facilities, but there are none for these children. Most of the children just stay in their beds,'' Dr Ho said. ''Some of them get chest infections or diarrhoea and we treat those illnesses. But we just concentrate on their medical treatment. ''The nurses are already heavily occupied by children with acute medical illness. They don't have time to do anything else.'' Staff admit they would like to see the children moved elsewhere because the beds are needed for acutely ill children. Kwong Wah Hospital, which is part of the Tung Wah group of hospitals, is managed by the Hospital Authority. According to its nurses' union, its nurse-patient ratio is among the lowest in Hong Kong. There are only three nurses and three to four student nurses per 60 beds at the hospital. At night, the ratio drops to one nurse and one or two student nurses per 60 beds. Dr Ho admitted the children were being starved of mental and emotional stimulation at a crucial stage in their development, but said the hospital was able to offer little else. ''I think there could be a chance of development for these children,'' he said. ''Their potential is limited but if they are being kept in a hospital environment then the effect may be even worse. ''I don't expect them to be able to ever care for themselves but maybe they can have some emotional response to people. ''We don't have facilities or experts to stimulate their development. Ideally, in some places there may be clinical psychologists and play therapists and occupational therapists. ''If we had people in these fields to work here on a visiting basis [then maybe they could] provide stimulation or help the [children's] development.'' The children vary enormously in appearance and degree of disability. In the furthest cot was a two-year-old girl, born with a heart defect and chromosome disorder. Doctors told her parents a heart operation would be simple but they refused to pay and abandoned her, expecting her to die. She lived, but physiological changes mean that it is now too late for her to have the operation. Now she looks out from under a shock of hair and wails at the slightest human touch. Although the size of a much younger baby, when she cried hers is the voice of a toddler. When she is put down, her dark eyes follow visitors around the room. One or two stuffed toys lay ignored in the corner of beds. In another cot lay a child scarcely larger than the cuddly toy beside her. The child's wasted limbs were covered with a small blanket. A medical stocking surrounded her hand and pulled it slightly behind her to prevent her from pulling a fine feeding tube from her nose. Nearest the door lay a small, plump baby, possibly nine months old. Only his eyes betrayed that something was wrong with him: they were slightly skewed. He lay quietly in his vest and nappy and smiled slightly when his tummy was gently rubbed. Nearby lay one of the most severely handicapped children, a three-year-old with a tracheotomy tube embedded in his throat. He rested quietly on his back awaiting a nappy change. Rivulets of food eased out of his mouth. The boy was injured when a baby and had been close to death. When the doctors told his parents he would live, but would be handicapped, they abandoned him. ''This is the normal reaction from the majority of parents,'' said Nancy Tsang Lan-see, director of the Heep Hong Society, the territory's largest organisation for handicapped children. ''Not all parents are enthusiastic enough or courageous enough to face the reality of a handicapped child. ''But you have to give these children the benefit of the doubt. ''They are so young you can never predict that they cannot reach a certain level. You just never know what they can achieve.'' She said confining these children to a hospital was particularly damaging to them because of their age. ''The first years of rapid development may be even more crucial for a handicapped child than for a normal child,'' she said. ''It is also important for them to have love. Human touch is very important. Normal children are always being carried around and cuddled by their parents and relatives - it is crucial for these children to have that as well. They can be very loving.'' Hospital staff do try to improve the children's lot, and would do far more given the resources. In the short term, doctors are trying to enlist voluntary workers to play with the children and give them the love and care they urgently require. Dr Ho said there was an old nursery building behind the hospital that could be turned into a special residential centre - that is if they were given the necessary cash, resources and staff. ''Maybe we could convert it into an institutional home for the care of handicapped children,'' he said. ''We could provide the medical care for the children from the hospital. ''But it would need some nurses and visiting services from psychologists and play therapists. ''It is just an idea, but I have been thinking about this a lot. If these children had some stimulation, it is difficult to say what they could become.''