THE BOOK OF DAVID How Preserving Families Can Cost Children's Lives By Richard J. Gelles Basic Books. 200 pp. $23

One bone-chilling day late last winter, New York City police found the body of 2-year-old Kevin in the apartment of his father, Anthony Mikell. One of Kevin's thin arms was dislocated, and his small body was purpled with bruises and cigarette burns. He had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The child's offense in his 43-year-old father's eyes: failure to master a 12-hour potty training lesson. Mikell was charged with second-degree murder.

The case made knife-in-your-eye headlines shortly after the death of 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo. The murder of Elisa, who had been tortured, horrified New Yorkers as had no child-abuse story since Joel Steinberg killed his first-grade foster daughter, Lisa. The sad tale of Connecticut infant Emily Hernandez, extinguished at the age of 9 months, received somewhat less media attention. Emily was killed only three weeks after being admitted to a hospital with a suspicious broken leg.

What makes the stories of Kevin, Elisa and Emily tragically typical is that the children were under the watch of child protection authorities when they died. Only Lisa Steinberg was unknown to child welfare officials -- and that was only because allegations that she was abused had been ignored.

Fifteen-month-old David Edwards of Providence, R.I., whose short life focuses this book's discussion, was also known to government child-savers, although almost inadvertently. David was suffocated by his mother, "Darlene Edwards" (the convicted child killer and her husband are permitted pseudonyms in this book), after she and her husband, "Donald," "voluntarily" gave up custody of their first child, Marie. Donald, the father of both children, continued to live with Darlene until she moved to jail.

Rhode Island became involved in the Edwardses' affairs after Marie, at the age of 6 weeks, was admitted to the hospital with unexplained injuries so severe they resulted in permanent brain damage. She was released from the hospital and put into foster care; her new parents soon fell in love with her and pleaded to adopt her. But Rhode Island -- subject to the federal mandate of "family preservation" -- devoted its spotty efforts to returning Marie to her dangerous parents. David was born during this frightening effort, but the social workers monitoring his parents virtually ignored him; he was not the child under government protection.

The strength of this slight but important volume is its step-by-step tracing of the case history of the family into which David was born. The author, Richard J. Gelles, a director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island, was able to read casework notes, and he conducted after-the-fact interviews with involved social workers and physicians. Such access is extraordinary, for child protection records are tightly wrapped in secrecy, ostensibly to safeguard the privacy of vulnerable children and facilitate family rehabilitation efforts. Confidentiality usually holds even after death, concealing not only the brutal domestic drama culminating in a small lump under a blanket but also the fatal mistakes of child protection officials.

Gelles underlines the appalling lapses in this case, but far shoddier efforts are commonplace in many child welfare precincts. The social workers and a psychotherapist connected to, and resisted by, the Edwardses submit that they did their jobs. Their legal ward, Marie, was adopted (albeit almost despite their efforts), and they closed the book on the Edwards family. So Darlene Edwards killed her son on nobody's watch.

The death of baby David is, Gelles argues, a federal case. Washington funding for state child protective and foster care services comes with the legal directive to make family protection the primary goal. Gelles subscribed to the family reunification doctrine until experience taught him better. Now he believes the welfare of the child should be paramount in planning the futures of child-abuse victims.

He is absolutely right. And there is more evidence than he cites that seriously questions the presumption that it's usually in a mistreated child's interest to live with kin or even a family of similar ethnic background. The federal government should change its prescription. It may be a matter of life and death to thousands of children if the government continues to maintain its policies instead of turning over the responsibility in the form of state block grants. Worse could be ahead: New Jersey, for example, is considering subcontracting the bulk of child services to profit-making businesses.

But Gelles is wrong in making another recommendation: eliminating mandatory child-abuse reports. By and large, the people who should -- doctors, teachers, police -- do issue the early warnings that could save children. But it's the quality of the agencies' response that abets child murder.

Making America safe for children requires more than clarifying our aim. Gelles recognizes this, although his writing lacks the eloquence to make the strongest possible case. Few people are truly immune to an injured child's cries for help. But Gelles knows that change comes only when the public listens. Ilene Barth is a New York journalist who frequently reports on child abuse.