The tragedy of the children of Atlanta has focused the nation's attention on something many would rather not think about: the pathology of poverty and the ugly things it does to children.

Now there are 27 victims, missing or murdered by a mysterious killer or killers preying only on poor young blacks, mostly boys. Police have made no arrests in 21 months.

The pathetic nature of some of these children's stories rivals the horror of their murders. Consider Terry Pue, 15, one of 10 children whose family once spent two nights in a hospital emergency room because it had no place else to go.

Finally, his father told him he'd just have to fend for himself. So he tried, alone on the streets, hustling to make it, sleeping with friends, or sometimes in vacant houses.

Aaron Jackson, 9, an inner-city Tom Sawyer, was on his own at all hours of the day or night, often barefoot and dirty. Once a neighbor found him curled up on her couch. He'd gotten hungry, broken into her house, raided her refrigerator, and fallen asleep.

"Ghetto children are usually left alone with an overburdened mother, or an absentee mother who has the dual job of raising a family and earning a living, so they try to make their own family units among peers outside the home, on the street," said Charles King, director of Atlanta's Urban Crisis Center.

Many of the victims lived by their wits on ghetto chutzpah, vying for the attention of too few parents among too many brothers and sisters.

No killer would ever get them, they were too "bad."

Some, like Timothy Hill, 13, brandished pipes and knives and bragged that they would catch the killer -- him, or it, or them -- and reap the $100,000 reward that goes begging. Each child was pursuing his own American Dream. And he figured the only way to get it was with money.

"Money is the ticket in the ghetto, like everywhere else," King said.

So many of the victims took to the streets to make their own way, running errands for elderly neighbors, carrying groceries, scrubbing whitewalls at the car wash, hustling to earn their own spending money and to augment their families' meager incomes.Curtis Walker 13, gave half of what he made to his mother.

Under normal circumstances, the hard-knocks path would have made these children survivors. But these are not normal times in Atlanta, and the children's early independence and ambition made them vulnerable to a calculating killer who was able to penetrate their defenses. Their yearning to escape poverty drove them onto the streets and made them available.

"What surprises me," said King, "is that these children, who understood the name of the game, could be victimized by someone who could lure them into a situation without any sign of combat. They weren't carried away. They wanted to go."

Everyone has a theory. "In my view," one FBI agent said, offering his own, "the [primary] killer is not a raving lunatic but a calculating predator. If he doesn't get what he wants tonight, he waits until tomorrow night. He's careful. If he needed to satiate some need and couldn't wait, he'd act anytime the need arose, and would have made a mistake by now. He hasn't made a mistake."

Police have been left with little to go on -- no crime scene, no witnesses, no weapon -- just bodies: 22 black children between the ages of 9 and 16, all boys except two, and four young black men small enough to look like children, two of them mentally retarded. One child, Darron Glass, 10, remains missing. Ten have turned up dead since January.

The FBI said it believes it knows who killed as many as four of the children. Those cases, however are not believed to be connected with at least a dozen "pattern killings," presumed committed by the same killer or killers.

These, and perhaps more, are tied together by circumstantial evidence, ranging from curious fibers found on the bodies, cause of death, the location where the bodies were discovered and similiarities in the victim's street-wise profiles. The one thread weaving all the victims together is that they were all black, all poor.

Two children were so hungry for money that they became involved with homosexuals, police sources said.

The bodies have been found in woods, off deserted country roads, and, lately, in rivers. Eight victims have been found in or near rivers, leading authorities to speculate that the killer has been following news accounts about evidence being found on some bodies and wants to wash away any clues. Others believe bridges just offer the fastest means of disposal.

Seven victims have turned up wearing only undershorts, fueling police speculation about a sexual motive.

The fact that four recent victims were adults leads some officials to believe that the city's curfew of children under 16 and increased parental vigilance may be depriving the killer or killers of available children.

"The kids were taken because they were available and vulnerable, and the vulnerability was made possible by the poverty in which they lived," said Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"As long as homes are overcrowded and children feel they have to get out to make ends meet and expose themselves and become street-wise, then society has to bear part of the blame," he said.

When the killings began in July, 1979, few beyond the victims' families paid attention. Only after angry mothers protested months later did officials take a closer look at the murders. The establishment of a special police task force took a year, after a dozen children had died.

Camille Bell and some other mothers say they believe something would have been done sooner if the children had been white, or from families of middle-class blacks who run city government.

"It takes a little bit more to get people concerned about a child out of the ghetto," she said.

In retrospect, the rate at which Atlanta children were and are being murdered is "extradorinary," about three times higher than the norm. In 1978, the year before the killings began, five children between 8 and 16 were murdered. Four cases were solved.

But even more extraordinary are figures on how the recent string of murdered young people died. Fifteen, more than half the 26 victims whose cases are under investigation by the task force, were asphyxiated.

"That's rarely the cause of death in that age group," said Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slayton. In the city's 1978 child murders, the victims were either shot, stabbed or bludgeoned.

Nationwide, according to 1979 FBI statistics, of 5,534 murdered people between 10 and 24, the same age group as Atlanta's victims, fewer than 3 percent were either strangled or asphyxiated.

What the crime statistics don't reflect, said Charles King, is that most of the victims' families are among the third of black Americans who live at or below the poverty line. And so, in most of the Atlanta cases, the victims' families were relieved of at least one burden: tthe city paid for the funerals.