"Don't hurt me!"

Darryl Webster hears the little girl's cry and whips around. Doe-eyed Tamika, 23 months old, has toddled into the living room with a dog leash and is trying to beat a metal shelf. "Don't hit! Stop!" Tamika warns the shelf before clumsily bringing down the leash.

A ghost-trace of abuse? Or twisted make- believe? Webster, a 31-year-old D.C. social worker, hates not knowing for sure. But when you invade the homes of families accused of neglecting or abusing their kids, glints, whiffs and intuitions are the stuff your job is made of. The stakes, though, are stone certain.

It is March 1995. The humane society already has seized Tamika's emaciated pet dog. Before the city's child-welfare authorities seize Tamika, Webster, a 6-foot-6 former high school basketball star, is taking a last, long shot. One of a five-member "family preservation" squad, he has come to Tamika's home to change it. The man with the master's degree will pull Tamika's mom from a crack house, lug trash, hold patty-cake demonstrations and teach some of the values that helped him up from bad times not long ago. If Webster fails at his job, Tamika may go to foster care or a children's institution. Or worse: She may stay in this apartment and suffer.

"I'm not the smartest guy around," Webster says. "I'm not the best-looking. That's okay. What I want to be is the guy who tries the hardest."

Family preservation has become, in recent years, a reigning child-welfare philosophy. Instead of removing kids from troubled homes, Webster tries, in the space of weeks, to patch broken families back together. He spends his days serving a singularly unlovable class, people suspected of hurting their children. He does this as an adherent of a depopulating faith: those who believe a government program -- a D.C. government program -- can prompt lasting change.

Disenchanted with large-scale solutions to the inner-city crisis, more politicians are embracing the social policy equivalent of one-on-one: the idea that mentors, role models and committed individuals like Webster can lift up families, eventually cities.

But as Webster scoops up an angry toddler in a Northeast living room, he doesn't feel like anyone's Moses. He feels nervous. The dramatic transformations politicians speak of are not the currency he trades in. When you hawk values and preach hope amid unemployment, foundering schools, vanishing social services and generations-old family dysfunction, success -- when you're lucky enough to have it -- is a small, fragile thing. Failure, on the other hand, can be spectacular.

Because of privacy concerns, family preservation efforts are seldom seen from Webster's front-line perspective. But the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) has agreed to let a reporter follow him. Tamika's family independently has agreed to participate.

By fall, the obsessed, emotional Webster will manage to change lives in Tamika's family, as he has changed other lives in this city. This family will change Webster's life, too. Someone in this family will steal his faith.

"Don't Hit the Baby" Webster's First Principle of Family-Fixing: Sit back and stare.

Over there at the kitchen table, Tamika's grandmother, 37-year-old Priscilla Hines, bears down on an unpaid Pepco bill, her pretty face anchored by a frown. Across the room, Tamika's mom -- Priscilla's 16-year-old daughter -- dabs her fingers in hair grease and weaves another plait on the head of her brother Leslie. Leslie is the gangly 13-year-old who now shrieks theatrically, "Owww! Beauty hurts!"

Webster tries not to grin. Leslie's bug-eyed antics and Ace Ventura takeoffs crack him up. But this is serious.

Watch, wait.

Suddenly little Tamika snatches the plate of grease and dumps it on her own head. Leslie yelps and grabs Tamika's arm. His other hand cocks back to whomp her.

"Stop! Leslie!" Webster booms. "Don't hit the baby."

Leslie's arm drops to his side. He looks bewildered. "I thought babies were supposed to be spanked."

"This is a baby with no understanding of why you hit her. Look, she was just putting grease in her hair like you do. She's a baby being a baby. And then you hit her and she doesn't know why. All she knows is she's hurt."

"Okay," Leslie says, working it through. He eyes his two little brothers, who are busy tossing a basketball through the frame of a seatless chair. "But is it all right to hit Joe? He's 3. Can I hit Sam? He's 6."

Priscilla jumps in. "Even the Bible says you can hit them. Besides, kids won't listen unless you hit them. I mean, you got to teach them, got to plant that seed -- "

"Plant the seed of violence?" Webster cuts her off. "No!"

Late into the night, Webster walks the Hines family through the intricacies of Time Out: misbehaving 3-year-old Joe gets three minutes of enforced quiet time; Sam, at 6, gets six minutes, and so on. As Webster demonstrates parenting skills, as his baritone commands fill the room, Priscilla watches. Sometimes she nods. But Webster realizes that Leslie -- silly, skinny-as-a-minute Leslie -- is riveted.

"When I first saw Mr. Webster, I thought he was against us, like the others," says the boy whose mimic of a Rottweiler bark can scare a stranger from his door. "Another guy in it for the paycheck."

"When I first saw Leslie," Webster says, "I felt like I was seeing myself." The Power of Will and Faith

"So many people said it to me -- You're a poor, black, inner-city kid, you're not smart enough to go to college,' " says the social worker raised by a grandfather with a fourth-grade education. "When I said I was applying for graduate school, people laughed -- No white school is going to give you a master's degree.' I fight against that with the families I work with: the voice that says, you can't do it, don't try."

Thirteen years ago, Prince George's County's Len Bias was the best big man in local basketball. Coolidge High's Webster was second-best, with a rough inside game and a silken jump shot. A gawky, self-conscious boy from 12th and Q NW, he had hustled his way from Kingman Boys Club to first-team All-Met to a full scholarship at George Washington University, even though he had no similar touch for school. But something happened to Webster in an affluent, alien college world. The star forward with an allergy to frat parties discovered the consolation of reading. He wasn't going to be an NBA great like James Worthy, anyway.

Entranced by "Man's Search for Meaning," an essay by concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, Webster thought about how will and faith help a man endure a society's most malign constructions. Could will and faith lift a generation from the ghetto? From his psychology books, he buttressed a truth he had seen some of his Q Street friends live and die by: Those of whom nothing is expected fulfill that expectation.

Some people are lit inside by a sense of their own specialness. Webster's light was a nagging sense of sameness. By his reckoning, he didn't deserve a ticket to middle-classdom any more than some of his friends. Okay, so he had profited from several small advantages -- patient mentors, basketball trips to the world outside the District. Was that all it took to change a life? If he could make it with a little help, whose life couldn't be altered?

The urge to do good, like the urge to do harm, repels simplification. Webster sometimes thought his urge was bred in the bone. His grandpa always was helping folks. Or maybe bred in the ego? Whatever. Webster just knew he wanted to stay where he came from and help change lives.

But as he struggled to pass college English, Webster learned a corollary truth: "Change" and "transformation" are slippery concepts. The struggle to make it is never over. "Yard by yard it's hard," the guy who thought he wasn't college material told himself. "But inch by inch it's a cinch."

A few years and a fellowship later, Webster had a master's degree from the Catholic University School of Social Work. "Inch by inch," he'd tell his wife, whom he had loved since high school. "Inch by inch," he'd tell his two long-legged, "Curious George"-reading kids. "Inch by inch," he would now tell the Hineses. A Case for Family Preservation

Oh Lord, Webster had thought when he first braved the threshold of the Hines house. Reeking tower of diapers. Leslie laxly supervising several hungry, free-range kids. Aggravated older male in living room, demanding to know who took his gun. And where the heck was Priscilla? Watching "Inside Edition" on her bedroom TV, door shut tight.

As a dad of the quality-time, worry-wart variety, Webster was revolted. "You think, can't I take the kids right now?" But moral judgments, Webster tries to tell himself, aren't his job. When DHS assigned him to Priscilla Hines's case in mid-February, he began to study and sift.

Sexual abuse, by a relative convicted and imprisoned several years ago. Drug abuse, by Priscilla's teenage daughter. Fathers gone. Family about to be evicted. Priscilla just quit a hotel housekeeping job. Family friend deluging DHS with calls, saying the kids were being neglected.

Sometimes, when Webster reads a child-welfare case file, he literally sweats. He's no psychiatrist. He doesn't have time to dig around in the whys. His job is to deal with the now. Webster saw there were things to like about timid, stressed-out Priscilla: her delicate manners; the fact that she didn't lie like a sidewalk. What he didn't like was her deflection of responsibility. "I think someone's got a root on me -- a hex from my ancestors," she would say to explain her family's situation. "No matter what you do, it won't go right."

Families are mysterious, summary-defying social constructs. Child-welfare workers categorize them anyway. Good? Bad? Fixable? Lost? By some people's standards, Priscilla was hopeless. By DHS's standards, Priscilla was a reasonable candidate for a rescue. She was drug-free. She had a history of working. She was eager for help. The Hineses became one of several hundred families referred annually to the program where Webster works, Families Together.

Families Together was created by federal court fiat in 1992, as part of an effort to reform the District's troubled foster care system. Family preservation programs have been around in various states for several decades; under the Clinton administration, federal funding for such programs went nationwide. One edge of the movement is ideological: to stop what some see as the too-quick removal of (mostly black, poor) children from their families by (mostly white, middle-class) social workers. The optimistic idea that hard work can fix families also dovetails with ice-cold fiscal reality. Foster care and children's institutions -- often poorly monitored, regularly crowded -- are expensive, a fact increasingly pertinent as Washington and other cities flirt with bankruptcy.

As the District's Families Together program was getting started, Webster was embarking on his career in social work as a regular DHS caseworker and spending more time with paper than people. When a colleague told him about the family preservation crew, where workers wear beepers and are on call for families round-the-clock, he was tantalized: the degree of difficulty, the immediacy, the caseloads of two or three families instead of 40. His coach at GW once had chewed him out after a basketball tournament: "Don't ever let me see you jog again, Webster. When you're in the game, you sprint." If you chose to play the social work game, Webster figured, you might as well run until you drop.

Webster doesn't often see good attitude sprout in squalor. In the first two weeks on the Hines case, he sprinted to secure a subsidized-housing voucher from the city and find the evicted family a new apartment on Eastern Avenue, where the sun streams through vertical blinds. Now groceries have been bought, nutritional seminars held: "Why BBQ Fritos Aren't Dinner." And Webster is ready for the serious work: battling the hopelessness he sees as this family's true hex. Making a Contract

Leslie blows out the doors of the 7-Eleven and slumps into Webster's Isuzu. "It isn't fair!" He has spent the last few minutes shivering over a freezer of ice cream, doing survival math:

You need $1.75 in quarters to finish the family laundry. All you have are food stamps. You can't cash food stamps, but this 7-Eleven will break a $1 stamp for a 75-cent purchase, producing a quarter in change. Thus if you go through the line seven times with seven 75-cent Butterfinger Ice Cream bars, you'll be able to wear clean clothes. You'll also be humiliated, because everyone in the store will know what you're up to.

Leslie would rather wear dirty clothes than lose his pride.

Leslie's 13 years of life have been laced with such choices, Webster is learning. Regularly watching the little kids, he stopped going to school when he was 12. Queasy about the drug world around him, repelled by the social workers who occasionally nosed about, he kept to himself. He drew elaborate cartoons in his room. "I used to have a friend," Leslie says one day, "but I forget his name."

When Webster started working with families like Leslie's, he got panic attacks. He couldn't breathe. Afraid of losing his job, he saw a therapist, read books on anxiety disorder, tried to vaccinate himself against the grief. But his supervisors continue to worry that he gets too involved in his cases. Internalizing stress -- aching for the Leslies -- propels some social workers. Others, it burns out.

Driving Leslie home from the 7-Eleven, Webster refuses to indulge the boy's self-pity, even though he sees its logic. Instead, the two discuss a contract they have formulated, "just like in the NBA." The contract's terms are simple: If Leslie goes back to school and stays there -- Webster conjures up a world of art classes, mentoring teachers, females -- Webster promises Leslie a summer job in Webster's Q Street neighborhood. "You're smart, Leslie. Harness it!" Webster exhorts as he pulls up to the new apartment, which reposes, the family has learned, between a crack house and a block folks call "the whore store."

It's 10 p.m., and Webster's beat. Back on Q Street, his son is probably playing "Reader Rabbit" on CD-ROM, trying to stay awake to see his dad. Here on Eastern Avenue, Leslie is lingering in the bubble of Webster's car, watching one of his new neighbors sell a bag of crack to a woman in a Cat-in-the-Hat cap. The neighbor boy is not too much older, not too much taller, than Leslie. This boy, Leslie knows, won't have to shame himself to do the laundry. This boy, Webster knows, is the argument against "inch by inch."

"Folks want to believe nothing stinks in the 'hood," Leslie whispers before slipping into the building, laundry money from Webster in hand. "But things stink in the 'hood, Darryl. They do."

Leslie's got a chance, Webster thinks as he drives away. If Webster just tries hard enough. If Leslie's anger doesn't ignite. "There's Good Going On There"

Down the halls of a former elementary school, past peewee-scale water fountains and graffiti of sixth-grade love, lies the headquarters of Families Together. On this mid-March Thursday morning, Webster and his colleagues are convening their weekly meeting.

Webster longs for Thursday mornings. His wife gets tired of hearing about his "other families," can't keep the characters straight. His double-breasted, briefcased friends think he's crazy. There are only a few people in Webster's world who fathom the tension and self-doubt of his $35,000-a-year job. Most of them are now plopping down at a table next to his desk.

Young, brisk, black-T-shirted Ann Bowles. Deborah Squirewell, with shell-pink nails and seen-all smile. The maximally pregnant Marvarene Williams, whom Webster listens to like a son. When Webster announces that the Hineses have averted homelessness, his colleagues cheer.

"There's good going on there," Webster says plaintively, "but there's still so much wrong. Tamika just wanders around. Her mother spends half her time in some crack house at Clifton Terrace. And Leslie -- he's smart, but he's angry. He could go either way."

Webster is pelted with advice. A mentor from Concerned Black Men for Leslie. Parenting instruction for Priscilla. For Tamika's mother, a residential drug treatment program and a psychiatric evaluation.

But as the staff plots, reality nags. The best drug treatment and parenting programs are overbooked and underfunded. The DHS resource room where social workers go to get blankets and clothes for families in crisis -- tapped out. There isn't even any blank paper. Bowles jokes, "I'm about to start writing my case files on Bounty paper towels."

Over the last two years, Webster has seen seven colleagues get fed up and quit. The remaining staffers whine more, joke more, do more improv. Tamika wears Huggies that Webster swipes from his own baby girl. Beds and strollers are cadged from friends, family, church. "You try saying to a kid, I know you're hungry, but the city's broke and we've run out of grocery-store vouchers,' " Webster says. "You can't. You just buy the groceries."

As the weekly meeting ends, supervisor Michael Bullock is the reluctant realpolitician. Referrals, he tells the staff, are flooding in; got to close some cases and move on. He flips through photos Webster has taken of another family he's working with. Wisps of children stare. Slime from a clogged toilet drips through a ceiling into a kitchen sink below.

"God." Bullock shakes his head. "Gross."

As Webster closes his notebook, his beeper sounds. It's a call from Clifton Terrace. Tamika's mom is there, high and sick. "Please come take her, Mr. Webster. Please."

"Hey, Darryl," a co-worker calls as Webster hangs up the phone. "Who do you pick for the Final Four?"

Webster groans. The annual NCAA basketball tournament is underway, and he doesn't even know who's playing. He puts his bag over his shoulder and hauls. Some Balm for the Soul

A few days later, it's follow-up night. Webster will drop in on the families he's left behind after four to six weeks of intervention. This is, for him and his colleagues, the test of how well you do your job: what happens to a family after you finish your work. As Webster drives, he chatters nervously about Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, anything. Trying not to obsess.

First, to the Fort Dupont projects, to see a teenage mother so famously tough her regular caseworkers refused to work with her. She throws her arms around Webster. She shows him her sleeping babies, tells him her news: She's going to mortuary science school! Mean as she is, she says, she thought it best to work with the dead.

Next, to the apartment of a 67-year-old man who was living with his three kids in an abandoned building when Webster first got his case. Knocking gets no answer. Tomorrow, Webster will learn that the man is sick. By fall, his children will be up for adoption.

About a third of the families Webster has worked with in the last three years have had children removed during or after his work. According to the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the court-appointed monitor of the District's child-welfare system, half of the families served by family preservation workers have children taken away anyway -- somber results that have analogues in studies elsewhere.

Now Webster pounds on a Bruce Place SE door. Five-year-old Alana Haskins peers out. When Webster first met her, she was living in a rat infested boiler room. Reflexively, he checks her hair, a sometime barometer of parental attention. The braids are studiously beribboned.

"Mommy," Alana calls, "it's that man who saved us!"

Mom, Antoinette Haskins, tells Webster her breast cancer is in remission. Her 10-year-old son, Delonte, takes a bow for his science-fair certificate, which is tacked above the couch.

Maybe unhappiness lies beneath Delonte's school awards or the sweet incense burning in a holder on the wall. There are truths Webster will never know. All he can do is amalgamate the details -- the magnetic letters on the refrigerator door, the white terrier bouncing on and off the sofa. "Antoinette, you're getting it together!"

Webster has other families to see, but he is in no hurry now. He laughs, gossips, takes a hit of faith. Never know when you might need it. Going Back to School

Leslie beeps Webster early the following Monday: hurryuphurryup. Today's mission is to enroll Leslie and his 6-year-old brother, Sam, in school. There is one thing Leslie likes about the new apartment. It's not far from Merritt Elementary, a public school he went to long ago, where he had friends. Leslie is ready to hold up his end of his contract with Webster.

"You all look like Leave it to Beaver,' " laughs Webster when he walks through the door. He tallies up the inches: Priscilla in lipstick and flowery blouse, washing breakfast dishes streaked with bacon and eggs. As usual, not everything is toasty. Tamika's mom is visiting Clifton Terrace again, and Tamika has begun calling everyone over four feet tall "Mommy."

Webster crams Priscilla, kids and a mess of school records into his car. Webster won't speak for Priscilla today: She must handle the form-filling, the complications, on her own. Since Merritt is not Leslie's assigned school, she will need her finest arts of persuasion. "It's like being on stage," she says nervously as an assistant principal comes to greet her.

Sam needs first grade, Leslie needs seventh. Priscilla speaks slowly at first, her hand in her purse clutching a new pocket dictionary. She finishes like a future officer of the Merritt PTA, turns to Webster with a conquering smile.

The assistant principal, definitely not smiling, now appraises Leslie: wild, proud head of plaits; thin body swimming in black denim. She turns to Leslie's transcripts and sighs. Endless absences. Straight F's. Fourth-grade reading level. She speeds away. "She thinks I'm a menace," Leslie whispers to Webster.

The assistant principal returns. Room for the first-grader. All booked up for Leslie.

"Room for Sam, but not Leslie?" Webster raises his eyebrows. Leslie already is bound for Webster's car.

"I hate her," Leslie steams. "They think I'm a thug -- that's why they didn't accept me. Well, fine. I am not going to school."

Sam clambers into the car and announces he has to go to the bathroom. Leslie spins around and slugs him. "I am sooo tired of you. I am sooo tired of this sorry life."

The Hineses have been sent to another school. They troop in. Sorry, too crowded for Leslie. Try Roper.

Webster struggles to mask his own fury. To Leslie, school -- any school -- is by now a foreign country. And those countries are closing their borders.

By the time Webster pulls up to Roper, Leslie is in the swirl: "I am not going to go to this stupid school they wear uniforms they look faggy no way am I going to school."

"What's your name, son?" demands an assistant principal as Webster leads Leslie inside. "Talk to me. Why are you so angry?"

Leslie kicks a radiator. "I ain't gonna talk to you!"

The assistant principal bridles. "Listen, young man, we don't want your attitude in our school. Last thing we need is a kid like you."

Children in white button-downs and knee socks stop, stare. Leslie breaks for the exit, but Webster maneuvers him, man to man, to a bench.

Leslie opens his mouth. What comes out is not about school. It's about Leslie. "All the fighting I had to do in my life, in the house, always taking care of my sister and Joseph and Samuel and my mother . . . " His eyes are shining. "Look at Joseph, going up and touching people he doesn't know. It's not right. Nothing is right. Our family, we're just not right."

Webster puts his hand on Leslie's bony shoulder. He makes Leslie a promise that no man can keep for another: that life is going to get better. Together, they walk into the office of Principal Helena Jones, a formidable woman in fire-engine red. Tamika wanders in and calls Jones "Mommy." Leslie finds the most-distant chair and flops down.

Jones waves his school reports in the air. "I bet you that the other schools said they're overcrowded," she says to Leslie. "Well, we're overcrowded, too. But that's not the truth. Leslie, I respect you, so I will give you the truth. They see these F's, they see you look like a hood, they say, here comes trouble -- keep that out of my school. So let me make something very clear. I don't want you if you don't want to be here. And let me tell you my rules. You do what I say here, wear your hair as I say here, keep that bad attitude out of here."

"I ain't gonna cut my hair."

Jones explodes. "Four-point-three! That's your reading level. You should be at eighth-grade. You're worried about your hair. You should be worrying about learning to read!

"Listen, Leslie," Jones continues. "This is the reality. A few years from now, you're on your own. And believe me, the world doesn't care about Leslie. Just another young black male. So you have to care about Leslie. I know, the world has knocked you on your butt, and now you want to knock it back. Well, knock it back, Leslie. Get an education, get out!"

Leslie bolts from the room. Webster bolts, too. He finds the boy in the bathroom, shaking in the dark.

"You're afraid, Leslie. You don't feel like the other kids. Life hasn't given you a chance to go to school, play, feel like a kid. You're always doing everything for your family. But I know you can do this. Walk back in there and tell her you're going to try. This one -- do it for you."

Webster holds Leslie for an instant: longer, perhaps, than Leslie has been held in years. Then they walk back into the office.

"So what's it going to be, Leslie?" Jones asks. "What does Leslie want?"

"Yeah, I guess," he finally says gruffly, eyes on floor, Webster's hand on his back.

"In this school, Leslie, we say yes or no. Not yeah. So, Leslie?"

Leslie breathes in. Webster breathes in. "Yes," Leslie says. "Yes." Degrees of Separation

The kids are in school, the house is not a war zone, and March is almost over. Webster's supervisor is pushing him to cut the cord on this case. Time to move on to another family in crisis. But as Webster zooms down Eastern Avenue on a Saturday, he feels freighted by unfinished business. Has he done enough for little Tamika?

"Tamika must know that she matters," he says as if to himself. "Tamika matters."

In the Hineses' living room, Tamika's mother, back home from Clifton kite-high, braids her little girl's hair. Webster pulls a chair close and gets down to it: How would she feel if her daughter were taken away? Tamika's mother is silent for a moment, then softly speaks: "Good. I'd feel good. It won't bother me if you take her."

"Because you want to go to Clifton?"

"Yes. I can chill when I go there. I can laugh. I don't worry."

Tamika, her hair pulled, begins to whine. Her mother, eyes closed now, pushes her baby away: "I don't want to talk to you right now."

The girl's coolness rocks Webster. He turns to Priscilla, who has been watching from across the room. "Priscilla, we have got to put a stop to this!" Webster's voice sounds tight, strange. "I can't keep coming here and not seeing it. You are not working with Tamika. I care about you, but I need to watch out for the one here who doesn't have a voice. I am going to go to the corporation counsel and tell them to petition for the removal of this child."

At first, Priscilla is stunned: Her partner in crisis is against her? Then she is simply angry.

"I thought Families Together was to keep families together, but it seems to me you're trying to separate them!" she snaps, flinging back the confidence Webster has fostered. "You're not seeing the good things. You're looking for the bad. You come here and try to surprise us, to catch something. You know" -- her voice rises -- "I think you hurt kids by coming around. You make them worry that things aren't right in the family. No one can be all worried out of proportion about their children. Some people live differently. Some people live in crack houses. It don't mean they can't raise their children. I don't need DHS, I don't need you, to tell me how to raise my kids!"

"You want independence and trust?" Webster slings back. "You say you can manage on your own? Do what you need to do yourself. Make it happen. Or this family will not stay together."

Priscilla bends down and picks up Tamika. "I know what I need to do," is all she says. Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Spring becomes summer, and Priscilla Hines and her family become just another case on Webster's follow-up list -- a family he drops in on from time to time. Webster has vowed to his wife that he'll stop ripping and running all day. That he won't get so attached, that he'll be more realistic. But every time he pounds on the Hineses' Eastern Avenue window, detachment is not what he feels.

Mostly, the details are reassuring: chicken in the skillet; a gingham bow on a floor lamp; the family's first phone in ages. Priscilla enrolls in a parenting program run by DHS, signs up the little kids for day care. Sam and Joe hook up with a zealous volunteer from the YMCA, visit the zoo, spend a week at the beach. Is Webster dreaming, or are they smiling more? Priscilla is smiling more: She is working steadily now, doing temp shifts as a cafeteria worker.

"I thought you were the only person I could trust," she tells Webster one day. "But you were right. There are some good people out there."

Inches forward. There are also inches back.

Priscilla has been trying to be a sterner parent to her 16-year-old daughter -- to keep the girl home with Tamika. But one day, when Priscilla refuses to drive the teenager to Clifton Terrace, the girl tears the furniture apart with a butcher knife. She is sent to St. Elizabeths, then quickly released with antipsychotic medication.

One August afternoon, Webster drops by while the girl is baby-sitting her little brothers, Sam and Joe. Suddenly, she is electric with rage. She says she's going to beat the "evil little boys" because they are saying mean things to her with their hands. "They're slick like that," she fumes. "They always talk to me without moving their mouths."

Little Joe, tears streaming, tries to hide his talking hands under a cushion.

The teenager's next stop is a psychiatric hospital. The child-welfare complex ponders once again what's the best place for Tamika, who watches the door for her mommy.