FROM JUNE 1998 until last month, 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond and her 3-year-old sister lived with a foster family in Northwest Washington. The two girls and the foster family bonded so well that adoption plans were in the works. But last month Brianna and her sister were returned to their mother, and today Brianna is dead, victim of a fatal blow to the head. Her case has been ruled a homicide, and police want to know why she died. The public also needs to know who was responsible for placing Brianna in harm's way.

The finger-pointing has started already. The private agency responsible for placing the toddler and her sister with the foster family is outraged that the girls were returned to the mother who had lost them in 1998 after being found in a trial to have neglected her children. Brianna's legal guardian said he opposed the children's return but gave in to a D.C. government Child and Family Services social worker, who said, after inspecting the place, that the mother's home would be safe. That observation didn't satisfy the legal guardian, who claims he then asked the mother's attorney to have someone assist her with the children. The guardian's request apparently was not included in the Superior Court judge's order directing that Brianna and her sister be sent to the mother's home.

The temptation to run for cover and hide behind privacy regulations may be strong, but it must be resisted. A child is dead. True, laws and court rules protecting the privacy of juveniles must be respected. And true, too, there are other children involved in this case. But there ought to be a way of accounting for the judge's actions without violating the childrens' rights.

A private placement agency reportedly had asked the court to reconsider whether Brianna and her sister ought to be reunited with their mother, because the mother had failed to comply with visitation rules. There were reportedly continued concerns about neglect. Why did the judge send them back? It's too late to save Brianna. But to prevent a recurrence of this sort of tragedy, the public and officials responsible for making tough judgments about returning children to their biological parents must learn all the facts and decide where things went wrong.