Since February 1980, 34-year-old Audrey Rowe has been looking for a better way to make the District's social services agency work, a job in keeping with her penchant for taking on the tasks of Sisyphus.

Her responsibilities include: the operation of the welfare system, foster care and protective services, youth detention centers, rehabilitation services for the mentally retarded and vocational rehabilitation. Rowe brings to each area dogged determination, a critical eye and remarkably high spirits.

Formerly an elementary school-teacher in Southeast, a community organizer and an old friend of Marion Barry, Rowe brought a strong sensitivity toward the city's problems to the job.

Her major criticism of her own agency is that social services are not designed to be effective nor to keep families together. "Services always come at the point of crisis," she says, and by then services are expensive and often lacking in quality.

Her biggest headache is the much-criticized Forest Haven, the city's residence for the mentally retarded. Last year, and again this year, the federal government refused to kick in its share of Medicaid funds to operate the institution. Inspectors cite unsanitary conditions and inadequate supplies.

It has traditionally been the city's "dumping ground for a population nobody wants," she says, and has been totally mismanaged and run on limited funds by a staff that is burned out.

Now Rowe is under court order to close Forest Haven and find new, noninstitutional residences around the city for approximately 700 retarded people. She has found, however, that local residents are slow to change their attitudes about who they want as neighbors.

She has a particular interest in the welfare of children. Sexual abuse of children is a serious problem, leaving deep emotional scars, she says. But taking these children away from their parents is difficult unless evidence of abuse is solid. That situation is improving slowly, Rowe says. Training has made people more aware and willing to report suspected cases -- especially doctors, teachers and police. Reports of suspected abuse are channeled into the department through the police or protective services personnel.

Another problem that claims children as its victims one way or another -- and lately, more sooner than later -- is drugs. Rowe particularly wants to convince mothers who have drug or alcohol problems to seek help without fear of having their children taken away. Mothers and children need to be treated together, since these children are themselves candidates for drug abuse, she maintains.

Rowe is trying to help Rap Inc., a residential drug treatment program, acquire a house they found recently in Southeast that would be used for a women's and children's program. It would be Rap's first residential project specifically for women and children.

She also wants this facility to have the capability of treating very young addicts if necessary. This may require emergency legislation, because the District's laws do not provide for residential treatment for children under 18, she says.

"There's no continuum of services from one problem to the next . . . . There are no street workers," Rowe says. If a single mother has an alcohol problem, for example, she not only needs help for herself, but also someone to make sure her child's needs are met. Without intervention, Rowe says, many of these children end up in detention centers and foster homes.

Sometimes the system must be manipulated to get the desired results, she claims, adding that her daring may cost her her job one day. One rather unusual approach to augmenting family life in the District is Rowe's "adopt a family concept." It would create families by physically moving elderly people into homes with single-parent families, where they can offer protection and support to each other. Her department is currently looking into the demographics and feasibility of such a project.

One former D.C. Department of Human Services administrator calls Rowe's position "a thankless job," but so far, Rowe is earning high marks from colleagues within her agency as well as from outside.

Rowe was raised in Queens, N.Y., and attended Central State University in Xenia, Ohio, but dropped out and returned to New York City to be a street worker for teen-aged drop-outs on the Lower West Side. She moved to D.C. in 1968, "like a dutiful wife," so her husband could attend Harvard University. She pursued an education degree at Federal City College.

Within her first year in the D.C. schools, Rowe says, she became quite frustrated with the inflexible system. "I began to sense I didn't fit in."

By that time, however, people were already making plans for her. She ran an educational program at the District's Women's Detention Center, worked for the National Welfare Rights Organization and the children's Defense Fund. "Somewhere in between all this, I had birthed a daughter" -- Nyani, now 10.

She also was elected chairwoman of the National Women's Political Caucus in 1975. She chuckles, "I have the unique distinction of being a registered Republican."

When Barry was elected mayor and asked her to join his team as special assistant for youth affairs, Rowe eagerly accepted. "My own feeling is that marion cares deeply for the city, but none of us ever expected the magnitude of problems within the city."

Although Rowe finds her job satisfying, she says she has always wanted a legal career. In comparison to her job now, she sees life as a student as one way of having more time to spend at home with her family. After law school, she says she would "like to serve in a national position that can change federal and state policies related to the delivery of social services. I haven't found the perfect position yet."

"Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services?" a reporter asks. Rowe frowns. "Maybe."