At 11:40 p.m. on Nov. 11 of last year, the telephone rang at Mary Adams's house in Northeast Washington. The call was about her son, Kelvin, whom she hadn't seen since March. She'd assumed he'd been hiding from police over some minor matter.

The caller was a D.C. police detective. He told Adams that her son, 31, was dead, that his body was at the D.C. morgue and that the body had been there for eight months.

"You're just now calling to tell me he's dead?" she recalled saying.

Adams says that the pain over these events -- and over how she was treated -- is still with her.

She has filed a $5 million lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court against the D.C. Medical Examiner's Office, which oversees the morgue, as well as the D.C. Fire Department, the D.C. police and Washington Hospital Center. The suit alleges gross negligence. She said their mistakes have ruined her health.

"It's something that's hard to talk about," Adams, a supervisor for a janitorial company and a part-time crossing guard, said of her anger over the length of time it took before anyone told her of her son's death.

In a recent interview, she summed up, through her tears, what bothers her most: "We have no explanation."

The Adams family found out from the death certificate that Kelvin Adams had died of a drug overdose.

It is a situation she and her family find all the more confounding because, during the eight months Kelvin Adams was missing, several things happened that had made the family think he was well, even if on the lam: D.C. probation officials obtained a warrant for his arrest for violating his probation; the D.C. Fire Department and Washington Hospital Center sent bills to her house for medical services; and the D.C. police and U.S. marshals came to her house seeking information on his whereabouts.

"I just can't believe the incompetence of the government, the hospital, the police," said Otto Adams III, one of Kelvin Adams's three surviving brothers, along with two sisters. He added that there is "no excuse" because Kelvin Adams's body was properly identified.

His mother recalled that shortly after talking with the homicide detective that night, she called the morgue and gave a man there her son's name and the date his body supposedly had been taken there. The man returned minutes later, she said, and told her: "The guy wasn't a John Doe when he came in. He had his tag and everything."

The next day, when she and her family went to the morgue, she let other family members identify the body because they'd been told that, during the eight months, even under refrigeration the body had decomposed.

Spokesmen for the D.C. corporation counsel, which is representing the government in the suit, and for Washington Hospital Center declined to discuss the case. Mary Adams sued the hospital because, according to the bill she received, her son was there on March 15, 1989, the day he died.

Kelvin Adams had two pieces of photo identification on his body -- a driver's license and a card issued to him from Community Correction Center No. 3 in Northeast, where he had to check in every day as part of his probation from the city's Lorton prison. He had served two years of a possible five-year sentence at Lorton for drug possession.

His mother said his troubles started in the late 1970s when "he began hanging out with guys on R and North Capitol streets."

Superior Court records show Kelvin Adams was arrested eight times between 1978 and 1987, mostly on drug charges and once for armed robbery. It was a 1987 drug conviction that landed him in Lorton. He was paroled in January 1989.

He got a job as a dishwasher, his mother said, and though his legal address was the family home on New York Avenue NE, Kelvin actually stayed with "friends on R Street."

On March 14, 1989, Mary Adams said, she got a call from her son's probation officer, who said her son had missed his check-in that day and a bench warrant was being issued.

About a week later, bills addressed to Kelvin Adams from the hospital and the D.C. Fire Department arrived. The bills indicated that on March 15, he had been taken from a home on Rhode Island Avenue NE to the hospital.

Mary Adams said she called the hospital's records department but got into an argument with the person who answered the phone and hung up.

She said that at no time did she think her son might be dead. "I was still assuming that he had walked away from Washington Hospital Center."

She said these suspicions seemed to be confirmed when D.C. police arrived at her house in May 1989. Adams said some of the officers cornered Otto Adams, thinking he was Kelvin. Another officer searched her home, looking in closets, she said.

In August, two U.S. marshals came to her house, Mary Adams said. They told her that her son's case had been turned over to them.

Mary Adams said that in her pain, she found relief in her job as a crossing guard at 12th and C streets Northeast.

"When I'm listening to other people's problems, it throws mine away," she said. "When you're keeping your mind on small kids . . . they have their own little problems. You're wiping their noses, wiping their shoes."

But her worries are compounded because a daughter and son-in-law, both noncommissioned Army officers, are serving in Saudi Arabia, leaving her to care for the couple's baby daughter.

Adams said she's happy to have things to focus on.

"That's how I take it," she said, "one day at a time."