Early Sunday morning on the last day of February, Howard County police received a call from a woman who said she had just killed her young son. They rushed to her apartment in Columbia, and found smoke and flames billowing into the hallway. Inside, near the kitchen stove, lay the charred body of 5-year-old William Pouncey.

His mother, Beverly Pouncey, was found alive at the scene. The police charged her with murder, saying that the boy, after drowning in the bathtub, was placed on the stove to burn.

For almost all acts of human violence there is one essential, and usually unanswerable, question: How could this have been avoided? That question is more troubling in the case of William Pouncey because, in the minds of many, it may have an answer.

William Pouncey and his mother were obviously suffering in the hours before his death, and there were many witnesses to their tormented world. At least 11 people--child abuse officials, police officers, security guards, shelter home personnel, and a concerned citizen--saw mother and son acting strangely.

They saw the mother wandering aimlessly through both of Washington's bus stations, mumbling about the devil and anonymous assassins. One of them saw her apparently try to kill herself with an overdose of pills. And many of them saw the son acting as though he were hallucinating. As a result of these disturbing events, the police were called in and, for most of the last seven hours of the boy's life, he was in the custody of District of Columbia child protection officials.

These officials had no reason to fear that the problem they were dealing with that day would end in tragedy. To them it seemed like a sad but routine case of potential child abuse or neglect. Still, there were many signals that the Pounceys were in trouble, enough signals to convince some of the officials that they should be separated, at the least watched very closely, and perhaps hospitalized. Instead, the system apparently gave up on them, allowing them to be driven back to their apartment in Columbia where, within an hour, William Pouncey was dead.

Why that happened is now being investigated by three city agencies.

"We've got procedures that are supposed to be followed in these kinds of caes," said Audrey Rowe, D.C.'s social services commissioner. "We want to be clear that there was or was not negligence on the part of the agency, or that poor judgment wasn't exercised in this situation."

Beverly Pouncey, 27, a former FBI clerk, had been studying nursing at Howard County Community College, and lived with her son in a sparsely decorated two-bedroom apartment. Their furnishings amounted to little more than a few mattresses. In recent weeks, according to a neighbor, she seemed troubled.

" She didn't trust anybody," said the neighbor, Reginald Lewis. "She would knock on people's doors and say, 'Don't let my son's father get your number.' She was always saying she was going to move, was scared of everybody . . . . She was always talking about people trying to get her, and hurt her . . . . She had the feeling that everybody was against her."

On Thursday, Feb. 25, Pouncey and her son rode a bus from Columbia to Washington. According to Dary Lee, a security guard at the Trailways bus station, they spent much of the next three days at that station and the Greyhound station across New York Avenue, "acting a little strange, running between the terminals." At one point, Lee said, Pouncey told him that she had been "robbed but didn't want to tell me about it." He also said "she seemed overprotective of the kid, and wouldn't let people get near him. She just walked back and forth, in and out."

On Saturday evening, the Pounceys were at the Greyhound station. Alan Saunders, a security guard there, later filed a report in which he said the boy "jumped up and said he saw a monster." Saunders wrote that the mother then said 'I believe him,' and ran out of the building. Saunders called authorities.

She reappeared in the Trailways restroom where, according to a maid there, she apparently attempted to kill herself. As the Trailways security guard, Lee, recalled: "The maid got me. She said she Pouncey had a handful of pills and was going to swallow them. As she was trying to take all the pills, she saw the maid coming and dropped them on the floor."

Lee said he found five pink pills on the floor.

Then, Lee, explained, "as we were walking upstairs from the bathroom, the kid kept mumbling that he was seeing a dragon or some beasts or something," and the mother kept saying that someone was trying to kill her son. It was then, he said, that he called the police. "She was speaking out of her head," Lee recalled, "talking things normal people wouldn't talk about."

Later that night, D.C. Youth Division police officer Gloria Donohoe and Charles Kelly, a Child Protective Services social worker, arrived at the bus station. "The woman was sitting there very calmly and she was talking to the guard," Donohoe recalled. She told them her mother--the child's grandmother--lived in Little Rock, Ark., and gave them the number. "She said someone had slipped something into her drink. She wasn't yelling or screaming."

"I told both officers about the pills," security guard Lee recalled. "I showed them the pills. The main thing they were concerned about was to get her back to Arkansas."

The grandmother was contacted by phone. "I talked with her myself," said Lee. "Her mother wanted her to come back home . . . . She definitely made the statement that her daughter needed to be under a doctor's care."

Social worker Kelly also talked with the grandmother, officer Donohoe recalled. "The last I heard Kelly say was the grandmother would respond to the bus depot in Little Rock and pay the fare at that end, about $80."

The next bus to Little Rock was 4:30 a.m., and the Pounceys needed a place to say until then. Donohoe and Kelly took Pouncey and her son to Protective Services' Northeast Washington office. "There was nothing as far as her acting crazy," said Donohoe. "The only thing the boy said was that he had seen a monster on a balloon. He kept saying 'copter' in the car on the way back."

"My distinct impression," Donohoe recalled after social worker Kelly took both Pounceys into the Child Protective Services offices, "was that the woman would be on the bus to Little Rock . . . .She said she didn't want to go back to Columbia."

But the Pounceys never got the bus to Little Rock. The grandmother, it turned out, would not have the money to pay for the trip for another two days. The social workers decided the mother and son would need shelter until then. They contacted the St. Francis Hospitality House, a temporary residence in Northwest Washington for families in distress.

"We had room. Our policy is to let them in," said shelter coordinator Ed DeBerri. St. Francis' officials picked up the mother and child about midnight. As they drove back, Steve Souder, one of the officials, observed that the boy "kept mumbling the same thing over and over to his mom, something about a helicopter--it was going to get him. The mom, she was looking scared."

The Pounceys were given a third-floor bedroom, but within minutes the woman was yelling from the hallway. "My son's having problems," she called out. "He's seeing things." Soon she was marching down the stairs, saying "Whatever he sees, he sees. I want to leave."

St. Francis officials immediately called the city social workers. As they spoke on the phone, the child could be heard shouting "It's after me, it's after me." And his mother could be heard saying, "Jesus will take care of it--Trust Jesus."

Souder told Sandra Holmes, the social worker on the other end of the phone, that he believed the boy was "hallucinating." He added: "We've got to get them separated. We've got to get them help [or] some kind of special medical attention."

According to Souder, Holmes replied: "This is the story we've had the whole day. We'll make sure he gets some help." He said Holmes told him that the child would be taken to Children's Hospital for a medical examination. Kelly, the social worker, was sent to bring them back to the Protective Services office on Rhode Island Avenue NE.

There, the boy appeared to be hallucinating again. "They were big monsters," he told a social worker. The mother told the social workers that her son "needed some help."

Youth Division Sgt. Stephen M. Micciche, the ranking police official on duty, was asked to look at the child, and agreed with the social workers that "the mother needed psychiatric help and the kid needed to be checked out."

According to one source close to the case, social worker Holmes decided to separate the two and send them to Children's Hospital for medical examinations, a routine procedure in child abuse and neglect cases. Beverly Pouncey, according to two sources, consented. When Holmes left work that night, she was "under the impression that that they were going to Children's and that arrangements were made," one source said.

But Beverly and William Pouncey never were taken to Children's Hospital. Instead, one of the social workers put the mother and son in his car and drove them back to Columbia, more than 30 miles from Washington.

None of the social workers involved in the case have been available for comment on why this decision was made. Even if Pouncey had changed her mind and refused to allow her son to be taken to the hospital, the social workers and the police still had the authority to take them there.

At 4:45 a.m., the social worker returned to the Protective Services office and, according to an individual who was present, mentioned that he had driven the Pounceys home. The social worker reportedly said that the boy had slept the entire way. He said that when they arrived at the apartment house in Columbia, the woman ran inside the building with her son and locked him out, saying, "No, you might hurt me."

At about the same time the social worker arrived back at work in Washington, Howard County police received a call from a woman who said that she had killed her son.

When police got to the apartment, they encountered the smoke and flames in the hallway. Inside, they found a dead boy and a hysterical mother.

The next day, Beverly Pouncey was in court, charged with murder and arson. "My son . . . was telling me he was in danger and he said he started seeing things like copters coming after him and demons and all that," she told the judge at her bond hearing. "People kept telling me suicide was the best way out. My son kept asking for protection."

The judge ordered her committed to a state mental hospital for observation and to determine whether she was competent to stand trial.