"THE SYSTEM is broken," said D.C. Department of Human Services Director Jearline Williams in response to The Post's findings concerning the city's handling of deaths among the mentally retarded.

"I refuse to concede that, notwithstanding the city's commitment to examine and overhaul these services, all of the incidents are the result of a system that is broken," Carolyn Graham, new deputy mayor for children and families, testified to the city council on Monday.

So who is right?

In 30 days the public may get an answer. That is when Ms. Graham is expected to deliver a written report to the mayor detailing staff and program weaknesses within the Department of Human Services' Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Agency as well as other units involved with the city's most fragile residents. Her report will also contain recommendations for corrective action, including firing of incompetent workers and punishing those who contributed to corporate fraud and government neglect.

In her council testimony, Ms. Graham cautioned that the inquiry "not be driven by fear, recrimination or a disproportionate sensitivity to the press." She urged, instead, that the myriad of investigations now underway be driven by compassion for "neighbors and their families" and by "facts and analysis." No disagreement there. We also hope, however, that her review proceeds with a sense of urgency. The city desperately needs a better system to care for people with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities.

The District also must get rid of workers and contractors who contributed to the tragedy detailed in Post writer Katherine Boo's Dec. 5 story. City workers and contractors may have been involved in the 350 documented cases of abuse and 116 unexamined deaths of group home residents The Post found. Three weeks after the story, only two staff changes have been made. Viola Keyes, DHS's chief investigator, was placed on administrative leave while charges of record-shredding are investigated. Frances Bowie, former head of DHS's developmental disabilities unit, has been reclassified as a policy analyst and now functions as special assistant to the DHS director.

Said Mayor Williams about the deaths: employees "from top to bottom . . . will be held accountable." When, Mr. Williams?