A 4-year-old bears the bruises of a face slapped hard. Young children are pulled from squalid apartments they share with adults they cannot name. A mother tries, in vain, to cope.

Corridors brim with sorrow when the troubles of the District's fractured families spill into D.C. Superior Court. Parents, relatives and advocates converge to plead and discuss. The children endure, and something approximating home must be found for them.

To the judges who try to piece thousands of families back together, or decide they must forever stay apart, the cases are wrenching beyond words. Presented with complex problems and imperfect information, they craft solutions stitched with wisdom and guesswork, wings and prayers.

"It's as close to playing God as you can be," said one judge. "There are times I've gone into the stairwell and just cried."

Five Superior Court judges agreed last week, in return for anonymity, to discuss their experiences in the wake of the Jan. 6 death of Brianna Blackmond, a toddler returned to her troubled mother in time for Christmas. The medical examiner concluded someone killed her. Police are investigating.

Brianna was buried yesterday in a snow-white coffin after a church service closed to reporters.

Superior Court also holds the origins of the custody fight involving LaTrena D. Pixley, a teenage mother who killed her 44-day-old child, Nakya, in 1992. A Montgomery County judge ruled Tuesday that Pixley should not be reunited with another of her children because the danger to the boy would be too great.

As with the Blackmond and Pixley cases, the 1,600 new abuse and neglect matters that reach crowded Superior Court calendars each year are rarely simple. Judges are required to seek family reunification while considering the best interests of the child.

But how on earth can they know what is best?

"These cases are, for me, the most difficult thing we do. We feel the least trained and skilled at it," said one veteran judge. "We're frequently doing nothing more than . . . playing social worker."

The judge gave the example of a single mother addicted to drugs, a frequent entry in the case histories of 3,100 District foster children and 3,000 other children deemed at risk. As with other judges, he requested anonymity, making clear that courthouse culture discourages public comment.

"You can't just take the kids away forever in every case where there has been abuse," the judge said. "You can't refuse to take a fresh look at things after you've tried to give treatment. I have cases where I've taken kids away, put them back, taken them away as mom relapses and put them back as she does beautifully for a year."

Another veteran judge likened some decisions to the dilemma of putting a felon on probation, maintaining that many people earn second chances. A small fraction of those second chances turn out badly, no matter how well considered, but the judge said jurists must "be strong enough to continue calling them as they see them."

"You can't predict. You know that if you put people on probation, one is going to go bad, one of them is going to kill someone," said this judge. "As a judge, you have to view it this way or you'll go crazy. When it happens, you'll take it home, and you'll have nightmares."

A full accounting of Judge Evelyn E.C. Queen's decision to return Brianna to her mother, Charrisise Blackmond, has yet to be made. Queen, on the bench since 1986, has declined to comment and has ordered lawyers not to discuss the case. The judge made her Dec. 23 decision without seeing a report from the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency that recommended Brianna not be returned home.

Abuse and neglect cases typically arrive in court after D.C. police have removed children from a home or after Child and Family Services, working with city lawyers, has filed a complaint. Four in five cases are neglect matters. One in five involves physical or sexual abuse.

Within 24 hours, a judicial authority decides where the child should live temporarily--perhaps the family home, a relative's home, a foster home or another facility. Within about a month, a judge determines whether the child was neglected or abused, which triggers future decisions about the child and the parent or guardian.

Cases decided by two judges in charge of an abuse and neglect docket are later distributed throughout the court, where judges take responsibility for overseeing the children's well-being for years--sometimes until the child's 21st birthday. Any number of judges have been working with the same children for 10 years or more. More than one jurist refers to them as "my kids."

Judges must depend on what they are told, and much of what they learn comes from social workers, who often have too little time, training, skills or support to do the best possible job. First-rate social workers with ample time are both priceless and rare, whether at Child and Family Services or within the court's social services division.

"The social workers are overwhelmed with workloads and turnover, yet they are our investigators," said a judge who lamented "the frustration of what you really want to know being unknowable."

Child and Family Services lost dozens of social workers last year to better jobs, increasing the caseloads of those left behind and complicating the court's work. One judge spoke of poor results and called it "not at all unusual" for a social worker to be absent from a review hearing.

"The judges don't have crystal balls. It's just like a computer: garbage in, garbage out," said James Marsh, president of the Children's Law Center, who went on to give one reason that cases require close monitoring.

"A lot of times, there are other people living in the house, and there are people coming and going," Marsh said. "The family is in one house one day, and they could be in another house the next day. It's difficult for social workers who have 40 or 50 cases to get out there and visit the home."

Superior Court and the District, already struggling with a significant caseload and a lack of housing and treatment options for parents and children, will be required to work more quickly and efficiently under a 1997 federal law. At risk is $42 million in federal money for social services.

Where it typically takes 82 days until a parent acknowledges wrongdoing and 128 days until a contested trial, the Adoption and Safe Families Act sets a 45-day deadline. Where the District now takes an average of 42 months to make permanent a child's status, the law requires a decision within 12 months and action two months after that.

The emphasis on speedier resolutions, designed to shorten children's time in limbo, will increase the pressure on the 59 Superior Court judges who decide or monitor more than 5,000 cases. One judge recalls working for two years with a large family before concluding that the effort was doomed. Judges say some families can succeed if given more time.

Whenever the choice must be made, the decision can be brutal.

"It is so wrenching to have a parent before you who desperately wants to be reunited with a child," said one judge. "To look a parent in the eye and say, 'You cannot today, tomorrow or ever have this child back,' is easy to do only if you're certain that the child is in danger."

Another judge spoke of seeing "abuse you cannot imagine." And of cases where family reunification meant returning a child from a comfortable one-child foster placement to the home of a large biological family where the surroundings are grim, the siblings are numerous and loving, and the troubled adults live on the edge of chaos and keep trying.

"Who's to say what's the better home?" asked the judge. "They are the cases I lie awake at night worrying about."

CAPTION: Charrisise Blackmond, right, the mother of Brianna Blackmond, leaves Evergreen Baptist Church in Northeast Washington after a service for her 23-month-old daughter, killed by a blow to her head.