The Deaths of five children in a fire at a foster home raise urgent questions about the city's foster care system. Some of what has come out is appalling, as city officials bumble their way through contradictions and defective explanations. To say the city can do better than this is a gross understatement.

Foster mother Frances Walker was in charge of four children and had recently adopted a fifth. City officials first said that they try to place no more than four children in a home and that the home was licensed for five children. Then District officials said they had violated their own regulations by placing more than two infants in that foster home. But that was not right either. City officials corrected themselves again and said that they do not even have regulations now that can be enforced, just guidelines. The city now promises to publish regulations.

City officials also say that Mrs. Walker is an example of one of their finest foster parents. But foster parents must notify the city in person or in writing about trips out of town and leave a telephone number where they can be reached. City officials say none of that was done in this case. The city's foster care workers say they still do not know where Mrs. Walker was at the time of the fire. Before a foster parent is certified, there are home visits, interviews with those who will be regularly around the children. Baby sitters are approved by the city. But neither of the approved baby sitters was there. Instead, five children -- one age 8, one age 2 and three less than six months old -- were left in the care of Ellis Meeks, a man who had been convicted of manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon. Mr. Meeks was also wanted on fugitive warrants for kidnapping and aggravated assault charges in Georgia. Authorities add that Mr. Meeks was drunk at the time of the fire.

Now, five children who were supposed to be safe are dead. This tragedy highlights deplorable oversight by the city. No one says foster care in the District can be perfect. Any substitute home situation, often hastily arranged because of the need for immediate sanctuary, will have its shortcomings. But foster care is needed, imperfections and all, for children who cannot stay in their homes. The District has no more serious obligation than that of seeing to it that the children over whose custody it presides are well-treated and safe. The whole apparatus of oversight and the process of placement itself should be investigated by the D.C. Council -- and now.