Vondale Hampton is a 21-year-old man-child. He is not yet toilet trained. He cannot speak, but laughs frequently, sometimes uncontrollably. He often tears his clothing. When agitated, Hampton will sometimes throw himself on the floor and crawl, then flip over on his back and slip his fingers under a closed door so that he can't be moved. Developmentally, he is a 4-foot-7-inch little boy who, according to standardized tests, is so profoundly retarded that he has the mind and behavior of an infant of 9 months to 33 months of age.

But this man-child also bears the scars, literally, of an older man--the missing front teeth and the cuts and bruises on his face, head, and arms that he has accumulated in the 17 years he has been confined to Forest Haven, the District of Columbia's problem-plagued institution for the mentally retarded in Laurel.

Now Hampton has become the focus of a legal battle in U. S. District Court over how far the District government is obliged to try to educate some severely retarded persons.

Those arguing on Hampton's behalf contend he can be taught basic living skills and, with years of intensive training, could eventually even hold a job. City officials, acknowledging their position may sound callous, argue that people like Hampton are simply beyond that kind of help.

The case eventually could force the D.C. government to speed up plans to open new group homes for many of the 300 severely and profoundly retarded Forest Haven residents, a class of people who have rarely been able to emerge from the confines of institutions.

Hampton's partner in the case is a 35-year-old former special education teacher, Sharon Raimo, who is his legally appointed "surrogate parent."

Raimo, a Capitol Hill resident with two children of her own, is one of 100 unpaid volunteer surrogates in the District, whose responsibility is to assure that handicapped youngsters receive a "free and appropriate" public education under terms of the 1975 federal "Education for All Handicapped Children" act.

While Raimo acknowledges that Hampton never could learn academic subjects, she and other advocates argue that he could benefit from an intensive 24-hour-a-day program that would essentially teach him how to live: to dress himself, use the toilet, play with toys, prepare simple foods, eat properly, groom himself, and learn some sign language.

District officials, once the lawsuit was filed, said they would begin providing Hampton some of this training. But they argue that Hampton is too retarded to benefit from the full program that Raimo seeks.

Julia Sayles, the assistant corporation counsel handling the case for the city, said in an interview that attempting a full education program with Hampton would be like using "a dialysis machine on a patient who is beyond that point." Moreover, she said, the city contends that legally it is required to educate Hampton only until he turns 22 next year, and therefore it should not be ordered to create special programs for him now.

Hampton's advocates argue that it is not his retardation, but more his confinement and neglect at Forest Haven that have robbed him of the chance to learn how to live. Therefore, they contend that the District should be ordered to provide him "compensatory education" well beyond his 21st year.

They are asking the court to order the city to set up a six-resident group home for the profoundly retarded, which would be the first of its kind in the District. They say such a home would not only help educate Hampton but would cost less than the average $30,000-plus per year required to maintain a retarded person at Forest Haven.

Eventually, they argue, Hampton could even learn to ride a bus, go to a restaurant, and perhaps hold a menial job. But they say the necessary intensive training must take place in both a classroom and a group home with skilled "house parents"--not at Forest Haven.

Seventeen years ago in U.S. District Court, 4-year-old Vondale Hampton was declared "a feeble-minded person" and was committed to Forest Haven as a ward of the District. His parents at the time were both in prison, his father serving five years at the Lorton youth center for housebreaking and his mother at Occoquan Women's Reformatory on drug charges.

In the same court that committed him, stacks of legal papers now outline the debate about Hampton's future, while 25 miles away, in an eerie green room that is often filled with the smell of urine and the sounds of incoherent men, Hampton remains oblivious to the case.

"The first time I saw Vondale, I was pleasantly surprised that he was so normal-looking. Four-foot-seven and childlike . . . a sweet sort of kid," said Raimo, who tries to make the 50-mile round trip every month. "When I saw Forest Haven for the first time, I was horrified. It smells like National Zoo, for one thing, and it looks like . . . I don't know what."

Hampton spends much of his day in a 20-foot-square "day room" lined with a dozen plastic chairs where men sit, each trapped in a private world of severe retardation. Some grunt. Some bounce up and down. Some masturbate. Some flick their fingers before their eyes. Some sit motionless. An attendant often sits by the door to keep them from getting out.

Nicholas J. Certo, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Maryland who has examined Hampton at the plaintiffs' request, said much of the residents' bizarre "day-room behavior" is actually not caused by retardation, but by years of lack of stimulation, which leads the retarded to stimulate themselves in unconventional ways.

Certo said he has "no doubts whatsoever" that Hampton could unlearn these behaviors, and with years of conditioning could master living skills, and even hold a job.

Conditions such as those in Forest Haven's day rooms prompted a sweeping 1978 decree by U.S. District Judge John H. Pratt, who ordered the District government to empty by 1987 the entire sprawling complex of brick buildings, which has housed the city's retarded since 1925.

Since the Pratt decree, some 235 residents--almost all mildly retarded--have been moved into foster homes or 22 group homes set up around the District, according to Charles Inlander, the court-appointed monitor of the Pratt decree.

But 675 persons remain at Forest Haven, including some 300 severely or profoundly retarded. Last October, James Buford, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, which oversees Forest Haven, said at a press conference that many in this most-impaired group would be "very difficult, impractical, and maybe impossible" to relocate into the community.

But the District is nonetheless under court order to do so. The city says Hampton must wait his turn to be deinstitutionalized, while Raimo argues that failure to move him out deprives him of education.

When Raimo became Hampton's surrogate parent more than a year ago, his education at Mary Ziegler School on the Forest Haven grounds consisted largely of sitting in a classroom with no desks, chairs, or games; where the regular teacher was often absent; and where an "activity chart" on the blackboard was six months out-of-date and didn't even list Hampton as one of the six students, Raimo said.

After consulting with the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens (DCARC), which administers the surrogate program, Raimo requested a formal hearing under the federal education law. On Aug. 9, 1981, following five hours of testimony, Dr. Alvin Goins, an independent hearing officer, declared Hampton was "not in a special education program appropriate to his needs."

Goins ordered the District to place him in a "24-hour integrated program, unencumbered by bureaucratic responsibilities." He gave the city 20 days to plan one.

Three months later, on Nov. 18, Raimo filed suit, charging that the District had failed to comply. On Dec. 12, U.S. District Court Judge John G. Penn agreed, calling the city's failure to move on Goins' order "inexcusable and reckless" and ordering District officials to comply.

Forest Haven's professional staff has since drafted an "individualized education program," as required by federal law, for Hampton. The plan said it would include the types of training ordered by Goins. Under pressure of the judge's order, the District last month also said it would refer Hampton to public school. He would be bused to a city-run special education center, but return each afternoon to Forest Haven.

However, Matthew B. Bogin, the lawyer arguing on Hampton's behalf, said in an interview that the plaintiffs believe Forest Haven, which Bogin called "a hellhole," is incapable of providing education. He said the staff there is poorly trained and overworked, and the institution by nature makes individual therapy impossible.

Bogin has filed a motion to have the city held in contempt of court for again failing to come up with a suitable 24-hour program, and Penn has ordered the District to show cause why it should not be held in contempt.

The case has not yet been argued in court, but District officials said they will contend that the severity of Hampton's retardation makes the group home program proposed by the plaintiffs useless. Forest Haven's acting superintendent, Donald Brooks, said in an affidavit that Hampton "will always require a high degree of custodial supervision and will never perform at a level that would allow him to complete even the simplest sheltered-workshop tasks."

"We can all wish that this child can get admitted to Harvard," said Sayles, the city lawyer. "I don't want to dampen anybody's optimism. We certainly support this individual achieving what he has the capacity to achieve. But that has to be in the realm of reasonableness."

"We quite disagree that this individual, given the best resources available, could achieve beyond a certain level. That's where I think the nub of the case is," she said. "Our position is an awful position to have to be in, but it may be more realistic."

Vincent Gray, executive director of DCARC, called Brooks' assessment of Hampton "shocking." Gray said his association sees the case as precedent-setting for the District because it could demonstrate that the profoundly retarded can function outside institutions.

University of Maryland researchers, directed by Certo, have compiled numerous studies showing that retarded persons as severely handicapped as Hampton have been able to accomplish tasks as difficult as a 50-step assembly of electrical components, Certo said.

Using behavioral teaching techniques, in which "good" behavior is reinforced with small rewards, profoundly retarded persons have been taught all the basic life skills, sometimes using "crutches" like picture-cards to order food in a restaurant, according to Certo.

"Certo says someone like Vondale could be taught to walk into McDonald's and order a meal," said Bogin. "Tell that to someone at Forest Haven, and they react like it's 1491 and you said the world is round. We are saying that this kid deserves the same opportunities as any other child. They are saying, no, he doesn't deserve that because he doesn't have a future. But if you start out limiting the child's future, he will stay limited."

Because of the Pratt decree, Raimo and DCARC officials hope Hampton will eventually live in the community. But they fear the District may take years to move him. Sayles said the city intends to place Hampton in a group home but sees no reason to make an exception for him, especially since his education is to continue only another year.

Inlander, the monitor of the Pratt ruling, called the city's arguments about Hampton's age and his severe retardation "a smokescreen" to cover the city's failure to create programs for people like Hampton.

Raimo said that if Hampton is not removed from Forest Haven soon, she fears he will remain there for many years because after age 22, the education requirement and the role of the surrogate parent will cease to be legally recognized. "If we don't get him out soon," she said, "then the door closes on him and that's it. Then he can't even take the little bus to school."