After repeated reports that he was being beaten, Prince William County social workers removed 3-year-old Rodney Williams from his mother's home.

Then, for reasons that Virginia law shrouds in secrecy, the boy was allowed to return to his Manassas home. Two months later, on Sept. 10, he was dead - the victim of what one police officer said was "severe beatings."

His death has ignited a long-smoldering dispute in the Northern Virginia county, pitting police against social workers, over the question of who is responsible for the county's large number of reported child abuse cases.

"The police officer has no business knowing if you beat your child," snaps Ernest Morant, chief of services for the county social service department.

That attitude, supported by the head of the county welfare department, has forced police and county prosecutor Paul Ebert into seeking search warrants of county offices to obtain welfare records of child abuse cases.

The records, Morant and other welfare workers maintain, are confidential. The welfare workers believe their first priority is "to maintain family life wherever possible" and not to become police investigators snooping into family disputes.

The Prince William quarrel is a rare one in Virginia, which decreed four years ago that the primary responsibility for child abuse cases was with social workers and not police.Most Virginia localities have managed to work out any disagreements over how to handle the issue, state officials say.

But in Prince William, with the highest reported number of child abuse cases of any county in the state, the issue is unresolved, and the death of Rodney Williams has made it a major confrontation in this suburban Washington county.

Prosecutor Ebert cites the decision allowing the Williams child to return to his home as "an obvious error" and one that earlier police action might have prevented. Police have charged Carroll Leon Cole, 24, a companion of the boy's mother, with murder in the child's death.

Police officers, who asked not to be named, charge that county welfare workers are withholding information on many such cases, often imperiling the lives of the children they are supposed to protect.

In one instance, officers said that welfare workers waited two weeks to inform them of the rape of a 13-year-old girl by her father. By the time police learned of the incident, the family had moved out of state, one officer said.

In another case, court records indicate that the welfare department refused to release its records on a 10-week-old infant who had been beaten until he was in critical condition. Ebert issued a subpoena for the records, but the department refused, claiming that the prosecutor was acting outside his authority.

Only when the police obtained a search warrant would welfare workers surrender the files in that case, according to court records.

Last year Prince William County had 456 reported cases of child abuse, a number exceeded only by the larger cities of Norfolk, Richmond and Roanoke, according to a state study.

But social service workers referred only three of the 456 cases to Commonwealth's Attornery Ebert, and only one of these resulted in a criminal prosecution, according to county records.

Morant claims that the volume of child abuse cases in the county indicates that welfare workers are doing a good job, and that cases of child abuse are in fact being referred to the department.

Only three of the cases were forwarded to the commonwealth's attorney because only that many were serious enough to warrant legal action, said Morant. Most of the 456 cases of abuse involved a lack of parental supervision, not physical brutality, he said.

A recent investigation of the county's Social Services Department requested by the county board of Social Services and conducted by officials found the county department generally in compliance with state standards, but well below standards in their investigations of child abuse.

Of 20 cases reviewed at random by the state investigators, 13 "did not have well documented investigation processes," and were deficient in their description of the child's injuries and the alleged abuser, their report said.

"The case narrative never documented what the (welfare) workers' response was to that injury," the investigation noted.

Social services director Ricardo Perez admits to concern about the Willis working on its investigative techniques. But Perez has gone on the offensive in the matter of confidentiality.

Perez has filed a suit against Ebert seeking to enjoin him from further seizures of welfare department files and asking the court to declare those files "completely immune to disclosure."

The suit alleges that "detailed personal information in the possession of several governmental agencies and be misused by unscrupulous or unwitting bureaucrats."

"If the commonwealth of Virginia wanted the police to investigate child abuse and neglect they would have put it in the statute." said Perez.

"The turf is in dispute. We see ourselves as the department responsible for child abuse. The police are the department for criminal investigations. I think there are judgment calls when the battered child also becomes a criminal case."

Perez said that any trading of information between police and social workers would instill suspicion and fear in the families with whom his department deals.

Police, the commonwealth's attorney and some within the Social Services Department say the tension may be easing somewhat since County Police Chief George Owens has begun meeting regularly with Perez, but they agree that the underlying differences can only be resolved in court.

There is a nationwide trend toward placing child abuse cases in the hands of social workers rather than police, accoarding to Howard Casway, legal counsel to a regional office of the State Department of Welfare.

Casway said the problem has long been resolved in other Northern Virginia communities."In Prince William County they're slow to change their philosophy. They still feel police should play an important role in (handling) child abuse," Casway said.

The other Northern Virginia localities have resolved the issue by placing primary responsibility for child abuse cases with social services workers and by directing social workers and police to keep in close contact when the case involves a possible criminal act such as assault, rape or incest, state welfare officials said.