The five children killed by a fire on Palm Sunday as they slept in a Southeast Washington foster home had endured personal tragedies in their brief lives before becoming wards of the city.

Like many of the city's 2,300 children in foster care, the five children were removed from their parents' homes because of neglect proceedings initiated by the city.

*Maria Marshall, 9, was placed in the foster home two years ago after being brutally raped by her father, who committed suicide in prison.

*Eric Walker, 2, was placed in the home by protective services workers when he was an infant. He was adopted by his foster mother in January, two months before his death.

*Steven and Stephanie Edwards, 5-month-old twins, were born while their mother was serving a sentence for drug distribution. She agreed in November to give up the children temporarily.

*Paul Holmes, born in February at Columbia Hospital for Women, was placed in the foster home 16 days before the fire on March 23. Questions raised by social workers at the hospital prompted District protective services workers to persuade his parents to give up the infant temporarily.

"This is a heartbreaking tragedy to put that many children in a house and lose them all," said Robert Keyes, a former commissioner of social services for the District. "These homes are set up to be a refuge."

By all accounts of city officials, the foster home operated by Frances P. Walker at 4286 Southern Ave. SE was a haven for troubled children, especially infants who needed emergency care. It was for that reason, city officials said, that they exceeded District guidelines, which limit foster homes to two infants, and put a third baby in her home last month.

Walker, 45, a full-time Red Cross caseworker and widowed mother of three grown children, became certified by the city in 1983 to take in foster children. The city pays foster parents at least $287 a month per child.

According to city social services records, Walker paid her sister to care for the children when she went to work. Her sister is one of two substitute baby sitters whom the city approved for foster children placed in Walker's home. Walker's daughter Renette, who lives at home, is the second.

Working outside the home is no barrier to a single person becoming a foster parent in the District. "It's a normal family arrangement," said Audrey Rowe, D.C. commissioner of social services. "She, like many other working parents today, has baby-sitting arrangements while she's at work."

Walker had left the area the Friday before the fire without notifying city officials. At the time of the fire, the children's baby sitter was Ellis Meeks, 52, who was found to have been drunk. City foster care officials, who were unaware that Meeks had tended the children before, were also unaware that he had served three years at Lorton Reformatory on a 1971 manslaughter charge.

One of Walker's sons, Timothy, told city officials he discovered the blaze about 12:15 a.m. and unsuccessfully tried to get inside the burning house. Fire officials said nearly every window had been broken and doors kicked in when they arrived.

Only Maria Marshall was found alive, but she died five days later after her natural mother agreed to end the life support equipment that was maintaining her daughter at D.C. General Hospital.

A soft-spoken and bright child, Maria had the longest tenure in the foster home. She was placed there on Jan. 19, 1984, eight days after her father brutally raped her one evening while her mother and infant brother slept in the next room.

A Children's Hospital doctor who examined the young girl testified that her physical injuries were so severe that she needed several hours of emergency surgery. Investigators said the emotional trauma left her incapable of describing what happened.

Her father, Barry Marshall, denied attacking his daughter and told police that a rat must have bitten the girl or that she hurt herself on the couch, stories that her mother initially supported.

A D.C. Superior Court convicted Marshall of incest, carnal knowledge, taking indecent liberties with a minor and cruelty to children. According to court records, prosecutors asked for a maximum sentence, and stated that Marshall's trial testimony "showed no emotion, no remorse, not even any sadness about the injuries his daughter had suffered." He was given a sentence of five to 15 years.

Once at Walker's home, Maria Marshall transferred from H.D. Cook Elementary School to Beers Elementary School, where she was a popular student. "She was a very cute little girl," said her teacher, Shirley Relf, who only Monday told Maria's 26 classmates in the third grade about her death over the Easter holiday.

"She certainly had a lot of trouble in her life, but she was coping," Relf said. "She loved her foster mother, but she did want to go home. She visited her mother and aunts on weekends."

Barry Marshall, who had worked in the kitchen of a Georgetown restaurant during the eight years before his conviction, was jailed in the Federal Correctional Institute in Talladega, Ala., on Oct. 10, 1985. A day later, guards found him unconscious, hanging from a bedpost with a sheet around his neck. He remained in a coma until he died Dec. 6, 1985. His death was ruled a suicide.

Relf said that Maria was told of her father's death. The girl had been attending counseling sessions at Children's Hospital, where the normally congenial girl demonstrated great hostility by throwing a "father" doll on the floor and stomping on it, according to city officials.

City officials would not discuss children they placed at the Walker home in the past, but it is known that sometime in the last two years protective services workers asked Walker to care for an infant, Eric, whom she adopted in January.

Last Nov. 4, city workers added 3-week-old twins Steven and Stephanie Edwards to the household. The twins' mother, Shirtia Edwards, 21, was living in a D.C. shelter house, serving time for a felony conviction for drug distribution, according to her attorney, Alan Soschin, who said Edwards did not use drugs.

After giving birth at Washington Hospital Center, Edwards signed a form giving the city permission to take the twins under an arrangement known as a "90-day hold."

Edwards was sent back to the shelter until Nov. 20, when she was released on probation to the house in Northwest Washington where she lived with Steven Branch, the twins' father. Her first child, a 2-year-old girl, lives elsewhere in the city with the girl's father.

When she tried to regain control of her children, she said, a social worker asked her to extend the hold agreement. "The city said the house I'm living in wasn't fit to live in," Edwards said. She said she reluctantly agreed to the extension. "They had no proof I was a neglect[ful] mother."

In January, she and Steven Branch visited their children in the Department of Human Services' offices at 500 First St. NW. "We had an 11 o'clock appointment and they didn't come until 12:30," Edwards said. "We only got to see them for half an hour."

Edwards also complained that the twins, who were brought to the meeting by Walker's two sons, were dressed in wet, dirty clothes and arrived in a car that had no children's safety seats. City officials said the Walkers were late for the meeting but said the children were dressed properly. Officials said they did not check for car seats. The Walkers could not be reached for comment.

In an effort to gain custody of her children, Edwards on March 5 began attending a 21-week parenting course run by Children's Hospital.

A few days later, her son underwent a hernia operation at Greater Southeast Hospital, according to Edwards, who was asked to sign papers approving the surgery.

That was her last communication with the city. "I found out from the 10 o'clock news that they died," Edwards said. "No one called me."

The morning after the fire, she and Branch arrived at the foster care offices at 9 a.m. "They didn't have any answers and they told us to come back at 10 a.m.," Edwards said. "Then they told us to come back at 1 p.m."

Edwards said she has been unable to obtain police or fire reports on her children's deaths and said the city has not been helpful in explaining why Walker's official baby-sitting plan was not followed. "They sigh and tell me I've got their sympathy," she said.

City officials said they could not discuss Edwards' complaints because she has said she intends to sue the city.

Foster care officials also did not inform Paul Holmes' parents of his death, according to the parents' attorney, Mark Carlin. The infant, also given to the city under a 90-day hold, was placed in Walker's home on March 7, a Friday afternoon, because there was no space at St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home, a facility in Hyattsville that holds a contract with the city to care for infants.

Paul's parents, who were trying to regain custody of him, also plan to sue the city for their son's death.

In the aftermath of the fire, Rowe -- who initially said all procedures were followed -- announced plans to revise quickly all foster care regulations within one month. Fire inspections will also be instituted for foster care homes.

Fire officials have not determined officially what caused the fatal fire, but have cited flammable materials near the furnace as a possible cause.