Rita Elizabeth Fox's gaze is vacant and unsettling, as if she is listening to someone else tell the grisly story of how early Monday morning neighbors held her back as she stood screaming, dressed only in her purple nightgown printed with white and yellow flowers, and watched a raging fire envolop her three young children in a matter of seconds.

The first man who ever treated Rita Fox "like a woman," her common law husband, Darnell Winfield Jackson, 29, is charged with murder, with tossing a lighted can of gasoline through the only window in their $100-a-month room at 214A Morgan St. NW that spread a blanket of flame over his children: Darnell, 2; Anita, 1, and Sheila, 2 months.

That room had been her refuge from a man who once had courted her as a teen-ager, bought her gifts and taken her out at night to city clubs. But about two years ago she said he had begun to change in ways she cannot understand even today. She said he began to beat the tiny children with his fists, he poured hot grease over her, he stabbed her twice, he beat her often. After broken promises that he would stop, she said she left him. As it turned out, he would not leave her.

Just before the fire, he had been throwing rocks at the window and "I wouldn't pay any attention," said Fox, 23, born partly paralyzed on her left side, a condition that has made her deaf in her left ear and put a slur in her speech.

"I was almost asleep on the bed with my children, they were asleep, when I heard the noise of the gasoline can break the window. It hit me in the head, starting my hair and the back of my nightgown on fire, and rolled across the bed setting the bed on fire.

"It all happened in less than a minute," she said, her braided hair askew after the agony of making funeral arrangements yesterday afternoon. She leaned forward on her mother's dining room table and wrenched her hands.

"My kids were asleep next to the window and I was on the bed closest to the door. It all happened so fast, my first thought was to go get help, and I ran down the hall to the room next to me and hollered to my neighbor."

But by that time, Fox said, thick black smoke was pouring out of the room and she could see the flames behind her. A neighbor helped her down the landing, refusing to let her go back to her children, she said. Fire officials said firefighters who arrived minutes later were unable to save them either.

What is most painful, Fox said, is that her children's death could have been prevented had someone -- the police or the courts -- made Darnell Jackson stay away from her. Several hours before the fire, Fox had called D.C. police when Jackson came pounding at her locked door, insisting that she see him. She wouldn't, and when police arrived, they told him to move on. When police departed, the tap, tap, tap, of rocks bouncing off her bedroom window began, she said.

"I never thought he would throw the gasoline," she said.

Last September, after Fox said Jackson had stabbed her twice with a butcher knife, and frightened her so much she jumped out a second-story window to avoid him when she was three months pregnant, Fox sought and received a civil protection order from D.C. Superior Court to keep Jackson away.

Fox said that even with a court order, police couldn't keep Jackson away. Officer Janet Hankins, liaison for the department's new Family Disturbance Intervention Program, said that police have no authority to enforce a civil protection order issued by the courts. "We can take action if a criminal offense has occurred, if someone has been harmed, but the law gives us no authority in cases where there is a civil protection order."

Fox's brother, William, said he, too, tried to help his sister. "He [Jackson] wouldn't listen to the police, to the court, to neighbors or anybody," he said. "Talking to him was just like talking to a mirror. I even had to fight him one night. As long as he was sober, he was the nicest guy around. But when he had a few drinks, he was just like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Rita Fox didn't know what else to do, where else to go, a situation that exists for many women, say those who work in Washington agencies that deal with child and wife abuse.

"What has happened to Rita has happened to many women in Washington, and it's going to happen even more as economic situations get even worse," said the Rev. Imagene Stewart, founder of the House of Imagene, at home for battered women just two blocks from where Fox and her children had lived.

"You don't read about this kind of thing in the papers, but if you walk down the streets of the low income areas of this city, you can hear folks fussing or talking about who beat who all day long. It's become a way of life," Stewart said. "A lot of people look down on the battered woman, as if she's responsible for being battered -- that's why a lot of women won't come forward to get help."

Carol Grossman, national president of the Women's Equity Action League, said spouse and child abuse cuts across all economic levels.

"I don't understand why things changed, why he became jealous if he even thought I might be talking to a man," said Fox, who said Jackson constantly accused her of dating someone living in her building.

"When I first met him, he was the nicest man I had ever met," Fox recalled. "He took me to the club at Fifth and M Streets NW, he wore a large Afro and he had a good rap.

"But then things changed, and little things the children did, like making a little noise, bothered him, and he would beat them and then threaten me. I knew I had to get away from him."