THE NEGLECTED lives of the mentally retarded men and women entrusted to the District's care were sketched in dreadful detail on the front pages of this newspaper eight years ago. City officials voiced outrage and vowed to make things better. That promise has not been kept. The city's treatment of the developmentally disabled is as troubled as ever.

A recent report by a federal court monitor documented poor health care, lack of critical services, and allegations of abuse and indifference involving the city's most vulnerable residents. Most alarming was the finding that 13 of some 650 people whose cases are being monitored had died in just four months. The number is high, but the population in question is aging and medically fragile. What's worrisome is the absence of any vigorous, independent investigation into their deaths. Instead of using an outside contractor (as was the practice after scores of unresolved deaths were exposed in the late 1990s), the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration, which has since been replaced by the Department of Disability Services, resorted to internal reviews marked by missing records, incomplete reports and inconsistencies. Incredibly, in at least one case, an investigator was involved in the patient's health care.

So it is not known exactly what happened to a woman identified only as E.G., who died in a nursing home after the court monitor raised serious concerns about her medical care. Or why in L.F.'s death investigators downplayed his failure to receive care recommended by a cardiologist. Answers might yield information that could improve the quality of care for future patients. Thankfully, the city has acknowledged the shortcomings of its current system, agreeing to hire an outside investigator and also to reinvestigate any case seen as tainted.

It's a sad commentary on how far the city must go in meeting the needs of helpless people that it had to have the court monitor define what she meant by "clean," "pleasant" and "safe." Or that, in advertising for a new director, the city warned any successful applicant to be prepared to cope with "many under-qualified and/or unmotivated staff."

Unless the city is able to show improvement, it runs the risk of the court ordering the department into receivership. That potential embarrassment no doubt is a powerful spur for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). So far, he has anointed his general counsel to ride herd on the department and cut through red tape, and he has cajoled Kathy Sawyer, a widely respected disability expert, to stay as interim director until a permanent replacement is found. All are promising moves. But we've heard promises before.