A 27-year-old woman and her four children have been reunited for the first time in four years after a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered the District government to provide the family with "a three-bedroom" public housing unit or "financial resources sufficient to secure housing in the private market."

The order from Judge Gladys Kessler marked the first time that the city government has been required to provide housing for an individual family.

The children were taken away from their mother after it was determined that she had abused them. The abuse charges came at a time when the family was often homeless, moving 10 times in 10 years, including once living in a homeless shelter in Bethesda. At the time the children and their mother were separated, the family was living in a rundown efficiency.

To regain custody of her children, the woman agreed to seek therapy and find a place to live. She satisfied the first requirement but was unable to find affordable housing because the family was living on an income of $426 a month from public assistance. The woman had been No. 2 on the city's emergency waiting list for public housing since 1978.

The woman now faced a dilemma: One city agency was telling her it had no housing and another was telling her she could not have her children returned until she had a place to live.

Represented by the Legal Aid Society of D.C., she filed suit against the city. In May Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the city to provide housing for the family. The woman had followed all other stipulations "to the letter," the court order said.

Last month the woman and her children moved into a three-bedroom public housing unit in Southeast Washington, the largest home the family has ever had. They pay monthly rent of $35.

"It felt great," said the woman, who asked not to be identified. "A lot of times [over the years] I felt like giving up."

After November 1981, when the children were placed in the custody of the Department of Human Services, the mother attended weekly therapy sessions and night classes to get a general equivalency diploma. During the day she searched for a place to live. Meanwhile, she kept in touch with her three boys and daughter, all of whom were living in foster homes.

"Throughout her involvement with the Court [she] has expressed as her ultimate goal the reunification of her family," court records state.

In June 1984 she received custody of the children, but she was living with friends and there was only room for her 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. Two sons, 11 and 7, remained in a foster home while the woman intensified her efforts to find a larger and permanent home.

"The worst part was sending the boys home after they came to visit on weekends," she said. "I would look in the papers every day for a place and I would walk or catch the bus to go check out houses. I could only afford to pay $190 to $200 a month.

"Most of the time . . . you get there and they don't take children," she said of the rentals. "All of them were efficiencies or one bedrooms. I dreamed of getting three bedrooms."

Oliver Cromwell, spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, agrees that the public housing waiting list is impossible, but he said, "The federal government is not funding construction of new public housing units.

"The city is putting its money into rehabilitating the old units," said Cromwell. "There were 13,000 people on the list last count and I would not be surprised if the number is larger now. If you applied now it would be five to seven years before you got an apartment."

The mother is elated to get off the waiting list. "It feels wonderful not to have to send the boys away after a weekend," she said.