THE PARENTS of a 2-year-old repeatedly burn and beat him, then abandon him. A 13-year-old robs an old woman at knife point and shoves her into the street. Distressing in themselves, these cases become even more painful to contemplate when we realize that the 13-year-old who mugged the old woman is the same burnt and brutalized toddler 11 years later. Toward him, we feel both fury and pity. Our desire to do something to him gets in the way of our desire to do something for him. We cannot bring ourselves to abandon hope for him, and yet we do not know what to do.

In New York City, one set of courts, the Family Courts, deals with both the abused children and the delinquent adolescents. Peter Prescott persuaded the Family Court's judges to allow him inside and offers a startling view of a tribunal from which reporters and the public have nearly always been exculded. The reason usually given for keeping us out is to protect the identities of the children. We may come, however, to share the author's judgment that the real reason is that so much goes on there that is "not fit to be seen."

Prescott's observations, over a 2-year period during the late 1970s, came after the second revolution in America's family court history. The first revoltion took place about the turn of the century when states created special, informal courts for children accused of crime. Retribution was banished. The judge was to be a stern but loving father. The second revolution occurred during the 1960s when the Supreme Court found that over the years since the first revolution that much praised informality had become a cover for arbitrariness and abuse. The states were encourged to maintain their emphasis on rehabilitation but were required to provide defense lawyers and many of the procedural protections afforded adults accused of crime.

In Prescott's telling, the second revolution, except in one respect, has been no more successful than the first. The Family Courts sprawl across the five boroughs of New York City and when they act at all, dispense a sort of random injustice. Judges push cases off onto other judges and put children into detention facilities for their "own protection," knowing that they are likely to be abused or molested by staff or other inmates; prosecutors blame defense lawyers and defense lawyers blame the judges for problems that are bigger than all of them; and a caseworker at the end of a particularly grusesome day goes out shopping and finds herself screaming in the middle of a store. One of Prescott's more interesting perceptions is that, in the face of crushing caseloads of emotionally charged cases, judges, lawyers and social workers begin to deteriorate in much the same ways as the families and children caught in the revolving doors of the court. Becoming a little crazy is one way humans deal with problems they cannot solve -- in this case the problem of coping with those 13-year-old assailants we cannot hate, cannot love, and cannot change.

Prescott's basic technique, like that of some documentary filmmakers, is simply to turn on the camera and let it run, injecting his own voice only occasionally, making most of his points by the selection of the footage he uses. We see parts of several trials, hear the judges, lawyers and children in their own language. By the end, we come to sympathize with the judge who, presiding in court, picks up the papers in front of her, tosses them over her shoulder, and shouts, "I give up. I don't know why I took this job. Don't talk to me!" And with the private defense attorney who sighs in exasperation, "Getting out of this court is like taking off a tight pair of shoes."

And yet rising above this chaos, while contributing to some of it, is the one group within the court whom Prescott came to admire greatly -- the young and hardworking Legal Aid attorneys who represent both the abused 2-year-olds who need protecting and the 13-year-olds the rest of us need protection from. They are the heroes of the second revolution and about a third of the book is devoted to them. Prescott admires them even though they persistently riase "technicalties" that keep relevant evidence from being heard. He admires them even though, because of their actions, dangerous children have returned to the streets. Indeed, he admires them because they raise the technicalities, for, as he correctly points out, the technicalties are not ploys of the lawyers' own contrivance but are rather the rules established under the Constitution and states' laws to make sure that all citizens, including children, are treated with dignity and are not deprived of their freedom without a strong showing against them. Prescott gives the book's last words to Charles Schinitsky, a legend within the court, who created the Legal Aid unit that represents the children: "The bottom line is basic fairness. What lawyers, the public, newspapers fail to understand is that it isn't the individual case that's thrust upon us -- the kid who commits a sensational crime -- but a process that has to exist. It's part of our judicial system. It's part of America."

At first blush, Prescott's praise for these lawyers and the rules they invoke seems misplaced. All the "fairness" in the world will not substantially improve the lives of these children or their parents or their victims. But Prescott has no illusions that they will. In the end, due process seems simply the one notion left to believe in when all other ideals have crumbled. Prescott has a fine ear and writes well. His tour of a Family Court is unique in the litterature. It deserves to be read -- but not on an empty stomach.