The D.C. Court of Appeals, in an unprecedented decision, ruled yesterday that the District can be held financially liable in a case involving the 1983 starvation death of a 5-month-old boy and the severe malnutrition of his 2-year-old brother.

The two boys were discovered in their home in January 1983 by a probation officer, a month after repeated complaints had been made to the city's Child Protective Services about the father's inability to care for his children.

Saying the District has a special duty to protect children who are the subject of abuse complaints, the unanimous three-judge panel said no one from the agency had seen the boys in that month and that if they had, the younger child "might well be alive today."

The District previously has been held immune from civil suits arising out of claims charging a failure to provide a public service, but the panel ruled that the city has a special obligation to neglected and abused children that goes beyond the "general duty owed to the public at large."

City officials said the ruling appeared to be the first time anyone has successfully challenged the city's immunity in this kind of case.

"It is the only case that I remember, after doing considerable research in the area, that the defense by the District has been pierced," said Deputy Corporation Counsel Charles L. Reischel. Reischel cautioned, however, that although the ruling was "very significant" it was "also very narrow and limited" to child abuse and neglect complaints.

The appellate opinion, written by Judge John A. Terry, also stressed that its decision was "exceptional." It also said that in the absence of the Child Abuse Prevention Act, the panel likely would have been bound to follow precedent of finding the District exempt from suit.

The court previously has dismissed claims involving police ineptitude in responding to an emergency call and police failure to protect a particular individual from harm.

The panel's action returns the case to D.C. Superior Court for trial where a judge had dismissed it because of the immunity precedent. Joel M. Finkelstein had filed a $1.5 million suit on behalf of the boys' mother, claiming city officials had been negligent in protecting Clara Louise Turner's children despite her repeated pleas for help.

Turner's 2-year-old son Lynn and the body of her 5-month-old son Keith were discovered Jan. 26, 1983, after the boys' father, Keith Lynn Roddy, called his probation officer, saying Keith was dead and urging her to rescue his other son before he died also.

The probation officer reported that when she arrived at the apartment the 2-year-old had defecated on himself and was "very malnutritioned."

"I just couldn't believe what I saw when I got in the room . . . . I went into the bedroom, but I could smell that baby before. When I hit that door, I could smell it," she said in her report.

According to the opinion, Turner first sought help from Child Protective Services Dec. 27, shortly after she left the apartment she shared with Roddy when he beat her up and threatened to kill her. Turner left the boys with Roddy, she said in a deposition, because a police officer called to the apartment during the fight refused to force Roddy to give her the children and told her "he's the father, he has just as much right."

Turner told a child protection services worker that Roddy, on probation for a heroin offense, was not feeding the children, had no food in the house and was not changing the children's diapers, according to the opinion. On Jan. 11, Turner again called to report that "Roddy had been feeding their children water only."

For the next 30 days, a new employe attempted to visit the apartment three times, but twice left after being unable to get through the main apartment door, according to the opinion. On the third visit the employe got in the building but left when no one answered his knock although he could hear loud music coming from the apartment, the court papers said. Police were not called.

Roddy later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to life in prison.