Regarding the death of 2-year-old Brianna Blackmond, who died two weeks after a court returned her to her mother from foster care, Deputy Mayor Carolyn N. Graham stated: "Parents suspected of such action often are sent to parenting classes and required to have psychological tests. They go through a battery of tests before a child is returned. It is so important for us to work with these fragile parents in the community" [Metro, Jan. 8]

This is all well and good. But when will the courts and social service agencies realize their first priority is to protect the most fragile of all in the community--the children?

MARY L. MAJOR

Huntingtown, Md.

Yes, there is sometimes an "inherent risk" in leaving allegedly maltreated children with, or returning them to, their birth parents ["Agency Irate Over Return of Toddler to Mother," Jan. 11]. But there is also a risk in not trying to keep such families together.

There's the "inherent risk" of taking the wrong child--the one whose parents were not brutally abusive or hopelessly addicted. There's the "inherent risk" of traumatizing children emotionally by taking them not only from loving parents but also from brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, friends, teachers and classmates. And there's the "inherent risk" of taking children from safe homes because a family's poverty is confused with neglect, only to have that child beaten, raped or killed in foster care, where the rate of abuse is far higher than generally realized.

All those risks get worse if government officials try to protect themselves and curry favor with the media by demanding the mass removal of children. They did that in Illinois in 1993, in Connecticut in 1995 and in New York City in 1996--all in the name of reducing the "inherent risk." But in every case, child abuse deaths actually went up. That's because workers were overwhelmed with children who didn't need to be in foster care, leaving even less time to find children who really did.

Finding the child likely to be killed in his home is like finding a needle in a haystack. It can be done more often than it is done now. But you stand a far better chance by giving workers the tools, training and reasonable caseloads required to find the "needles" than by trying to vacuum up the entire haystack.

RICHARD WEXLER

Alexandria

The writer is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.