THE DISTRICT'S child welfare system is back in the dock, and this time the accused is the Department of Human Services' foster care program for the city's neglected and abused children. According to a class-action suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in federal court on behalf of more than 2,000 foster care children, the city's system is as chaotic and as damaging to them as the homes from which they have been removed.

Last week lawyers and expert witnesses provided engrossing testimony about children caught up in a bureaucracy that, by description, seems impervious to the dictates of federal and city child welfare laws, estranged from sound and simple management ideas and unresponsive to the needs of the children who require protection. The damage caused by this alleged negligence and incompetence is devastating. The court heard about 11-year-old Kevin, who climbed into a trash can at St. Elizabeths Hospital and waited to be thrown away because he said he was worthless. This child has had at least 11 different placements, been physically abused by his mother and missed out on adoption by families that have wanted him, because the city never got around to implementing an adoption plan for him.

Then there was Robert, a 12-year-old boy whose greatest fear, he told the psychiatrist, was "people." A five-year veteran of foster homes, abandoned twice by his mother and a victim of beatings at her hands and a foster mother's as well, he has been in temporary 90 days "emergency care" for years.

The ACLU lawsuit constitutes a denunciation of the city's welfare system. The charges, however, are not unique. The Rivlin Commission also concluded that the program falls short of all acceptable standards, is grossly inefficient and costly. From a system that cries constantly about the lack of resources, the commission disclosed that the program returns unspent foster care federal funds that could be used to hire more social workers. And because of deficiencies in the present case-tracking system, the city is losing $3 million annually in federal reimbursements. According to the Rivlin Commission, parents who can pay child support payments don't, because the city won't pursue them.

A final judgment has not been rendered on the lawsuit, but you don't have to wait for that. The city's new leadership and the public have an opportunity to delve into the causes of this crisis and to fix the problems. People need to know why the District's child welfare system performs as poorly as it does.