THIS TOWN HAS JUST witnessed a case of domestic violence that is as extreme as anything to come along in this area in some time. Rita Fox lived with a man five years, had three children by him -- ages 2, 1 and 2 months. In the last two years, she told the court, his behavior changed, he beat her, stabbed her, threw grease on her, and beat the children.She petitioned the court for a civil protection order last September when she was six months pregnant. The U.S. Marshal's office tried five times to serve summonses on the man, but they could not find him.

But even if the order had been obtained and he had been prohibited by the court from harassing or threatening her for a year, no one could have kept the man away. That's the way the system works.

And so on the morning of March 9, only hours after police were called to Fox's row house and only hours after they told the man to stay away, someone heaved a lighted can of kerosene into the room where Rita and her children slept. The children were burned to death in an instant inferno. The man Darnell Winfield Jackson, has been charged with murder.

A number of women's organizations have scheduled a hearing at 1 p.m. Friday in the District Building to find out how this tragedy could have been averted, to focus on loopholes in the current laws and to pressure public agencies to be more responsive to perilous living situations of battered women.

This is no small number of people in Washington. The citizen's complaint center received almost 10,000 reports in 1980 from women who showed up claiming they were abused. After being interviewed by paralegals, some 2,200 women were referred to the corporation counsel's office for hearings and 924 of them had hearings scheduled that led to an unknown number of civil protection orders. Another 189 of them had cases of such severity that they were referred to the U.S. attorney's offfice for criminal prosecution.

While the case of Rita Fox is particularly horrible in its outcome, its handling illustrates how the system fails to protect battered women, says Lauren Taylor, a community educator with the Women's Legal Defense Fund. Taylor was one of the founder's of My Sister's Place, a shelter for battered women run by the WLDF, and has worked with battered women for three years both in the shelter and on hotlines. My sister's Place takes in 250 women and children a year and turns away five times that number for lack of space.

"This is a very typical example of the way the systems and the agencies in the city deal with the problems of battered women, and how they fall through the cracks," says Taylor. "The police have no authority to enforce the civil protection order." Then, she says, when they do answer a complaint of domestic disturbance, "they say everybody cool out and they tell the guy to walk around the block.

"Then police will tell a woman she can go to the citizens complaint center . . . but that is only open 9 to 5, which isn't accessible to a lot of women who can't afford to take time off from work." There, an emotionally distraught woman may tell of the most recent incident, but not know that she should present a history of abuse, if it exists. Thus, the paralegal might opt to recommend that authorities pursue the case as a civil matter rather than a criminal assault.

"For a lot of good reasons the civil system can be more responsive to the needs of a family," says Taylor, "but it also means that the assault isn't treated as seriously as a criminal assault." Then, the wait for a hearing can be up to six weeks, during which time the woman may continue to live with her mate while he cajoles or threatens her into dropping charges. Meanwhile, the marshal's office has to serve the mate with a subpoena, which may not be easy, as in the case of Jackson.

Rita Fox's case is a tragic argument for simplifying procedures for obtaining a civil protection order so that women can obtain them unilaterally when a man successfully ducks summonses. It is also an argument for enhancing the capability of police officers to enforce court orders designed to protect women against dangerous men. As it now stands, a woman who obtains such an order has to go back through the citizen's complaint center to initiate another hearing at which time the man may be held in contempt. But the police, on the spot, have no authority to enforce a CPO that is being violated.

Police can arrest someone if they have probable cause to believe an assault has been committed. They should also be allowed to arrest someone if they have reasonable cause to believe a civil protection order has been violated. They arrest you if you say "hijack" on a plane and they arrest you if you make some offhand threatening coment about a president. These may seem like extreme reactions, but we understood in making those laws that we were dealing with life and death matters and we value lives of passengers on airplanes and of men we put in the White House.

And we ought to value the lives of battered women and children enough to give them protection that works. For them, too, it is a matter of life and death.