The photo album shows how far 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond had come. When she was an infant, her older siblings, dirty and poorly fed, had been found eating from a dumpster and begging for food, forcing the District government to intervene. But here are pictures of Brianna with her foster parents, with Santa Claus, with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, with her first birthday cake.

In her new D.C. home, where the Christmas decorations are still up, the tearful foster mother flips to the last page of the pink lace album. There she has affixed a newspaper clipping, detailing how, on a judge's orders, Brianna had been returned to her biological mother's home--where she later suffered a fatal blow to the head.

"It's so hard to believe," the foster mother, her voice trembling, said in an interview. "She was so happy here. How could this have happened?"

It began with a knock at the foster mother's door on Dec. 23. She remembers it vividly: officials from a social services agency, distraught, telling her to quickly pack up the two little girls who had been in her care for more than a year. The foster mother and her husband had grown to love the girls and were talking adoption.

Suddenly, the sisters were gone.

That was the last time the foster mother saw Brianna. Less than two weeks later, two officials from the agency, PSI Family Services, returned, holding the 3-year-old's hand. The toddler was coming back to live with the foster mother, back to the well-kept, three-story house with wall-to-wall beige carpeting. But Brianna, they said, was dead. Only later did the shocked foster mother learn how she died.

"I'm still waiting for her to come back," the foster mother, who consented to be interviewed only if she were not identified, said as she sat on her couch, flipping through the photo album that showed how Brianna and her sister had become a part of their new family.

Brianna's death has shaken the D.C. foster care system, leading city officials, child welfare advocates and social workers not only to point fingers at one another, but also to ask tough questions about policies that emphasize returning children to their biological parents.

Because court records in foster cases are sealed and participants are legally restricted from discussing them, it's unclear exactly what led D.C. Superior Court Judge Evelyn E.C. Queen to return Brianna to Charrisise Blackmond, whose requests for her children had been rejected at least four times in the last year.

To D.C. police, it's a homicide case. Assistant Police Chief William McManus said yesterday that no arrests have been made in Brianna's slaying. Police sources said they are investigating Charrisise Blackmond and at least two other adults believed to have been in Blackmond's house on Bates Street NW when Brianna was fatally injured on Jan. 5.

Jackie Walsh, Blackmond's attorney, said she had no comment on the case. Queen this week reemphasized her court's order that all parties not discuss any aspect of the case with the media.

But yesterday, more details of the neglect cases involving Brianna and her eight siblings emerged.

The foster mother of one of Brianna's siblings said the child found out about Brianna's death from news reports and is "devastated." That child and at least one other also were ordered to go back to Charrisise Blackmond's home on Dec. 23. But the foster mother said the two other children were sick, and so were able to stay with their foster parents.

The child "was coloring when I saw the newspaper article about Brianna," said the foster mother, who like Brianna's foster mother asked not to be identified. "I said, 'Don't you have a sister named Brianna?' [The child] came over, saw the article and started breathing real hard. [The child] screamed, 'Oh my God!' and ran into my arms, trembling. [The child] was screaming and crying."

Sources said yesterday that eight of Blackmond's children--now ages 3 to 13 years old-- were taken from her in June 1998, after neighbors saw them digging in dumpsters for food and school officials reported that some of them had been stealing food from school because they were hungry. The children also had not been attending school regularly and were dressed poorly when they did.

When D.C. social workers arrived at Charrisise Blackmond's home--she lived then on Dix Street NE--they found the family living in "absolute filth," a child welfare source said.

"The children were living amidst urine-soaked clothes," the source said. "The children were dirty and they were eating out of trash cans."

Seven of the children were placed in foster care. Brianna and a sister were placed with the same family, who also have a child of their own. One of Blackmond's children was sent to live with a relative. Meanwhile, Blackmond had another baby last April.

Attorney Samuel Adewusi was appointed legal guardian to many of the children, including Brianna. He essentially was Brianna's lawyer and advocate in court. The case was always one of neglect--not physical abuse.

Adewusi argued in at least four proceedings that Brianna should not be returned to her mother because of neglect concerns. But Blackmond insisted that she was not neglectful, and the city last year had to go to trial to prove its case.

At trial in D.C. Superior Court, Assistant Corporation Counsel Michael Orton argued that the children should not be returned to their mother because of neglect, and won the case. Orton said he could not comment on the case because of confidentiality rules; a spokesman for the corporation counsel's office also said she could not comment.

Adewusi was Brianna's legal guardian in court, but his role in her case appears to have been somewhat limited. He did not know, for example, that last summer Brianna and her foster family moved from a Columbia Heights apartment to a new single-family home.

Closer contact with Brianna and her foster family fell to PSI, a private agency that contracts with the child welfare system to place neglected children with foster families. PSI Executive Vice President Yvonne Ali has said she was shocked on Dec. 23 to hear about Queen's order sending Brianna and her sister back to Blackmond.

But Ali said she was told that the matter had been settled without her consultation.

The goal of the child welfare system is to return children to their biological parents whenever possible. Foster parents agree to take children knowing that that can happen at any time.

Before her latest request to get her children back, Blackmond had moved to a different home, on Bates Street NW. Yvonne Dubose, a social worker from the city's Child and Family Services agency, inspected the home and told Adewusi she thought it was safe for the children.

Adewusi initially disagreed, but says he relented after Blackmond's attorney agreed that there would be another adult in the home to help care for the children. That understanding, however, was never put in writing.

Blackmond had been arrested once for drug possession. The charges were later dropped. Sources said there is no indication that criminal background checks were done on other adults who live with or frequently visit Blackmond.

After Brianna was fatally injured last week, the other children in Blackmond's house were returned to foster care.

Through her attorney, Blackmond yesterday asked the foster parents whether she could visit all her children this weekend. It was clear that some of the foster parents will oppose that idea.

The second foster mother said that after Brianna's death, the child she is caring for doesn't want to go back to Blackmond's home.

The child "is scared," she said.