NEW YORK (AP) _ Violent crime, racial tensions, Korean grocery boycotts - at least Mayor David Dinkins has a fighting chance against them. But what are the options when you're under attack by an 85-year-old saint-in-waiting?

That public relations nightmare is now reality for Dinkins, who was ripped this week by the heroic Mother Clara Hale over a city policy that has kept children out of her nationally known group care nursery for the past year.

The city now requires placement of infants in foster care, rather than in group centers such as Hale House. The decision is costing the Harlem center $30,000 to $36,000 per month in city subsidies, clouding its financial future.

Mrs. Hale has charged the mayor is doing what white leaders tell him. Dinkins, the city's first black mayor, asserts he acted independently, and adds that he can't believe that comment was ever made.

''This is what happens when they give a black man a job. He does what the white man tells him to do,'' the 85-year-old black woman told The New York Times. Contacted at a Manhattan hospital where she checked in last week with chest pains, she did not back off that statement.

Dinkins expressed disbelief when asked about the remark.

''That's just not true. I don't bow to anybody,'' said Dinkins, whose wife, Joyce, was the host for Mother Hale's birthday party at Gracie Mansion earlier this year.

''I doubt Mother Hale said that. If I heard Mother Hale say it, I wouldn't believe Mother Hale said it. That's not our relationship.''

Mother Hale's credentials are many. More than 800 drug-addicted infants have passed through her brownstone since 1969. President Reagan hailed her as ''an American hero'' on national television five years ago. Today, she still helps care for the babies she calls her children.

Mother Hale's care may be special, but the city position - one echoed by experts - is that foster homes are better for the children than group care centers. The city hasn't placed a child at Hale House since October 1989.

Hale House's operators believes the success of their program speaks louder than any expert on what's best for the children. They attempted to explain their position to Dinkins, but became infuriated when their first meeting was rescheduled and the second lasted less than five minutes.

The meeting failed to change the mayor's mind and put Hale House on the offensive, although Dinkins has offered to provide city funds to it for other programs in an effort to keep it open.

When Reagan praised Mother Hale five years ago, her center on West 122nd Street was 70 percent government funded; today, it is two-thirds subsidized by private contributions, said Jesse Devor, public relations consultant for Hale House.

Devor said it was only the center's good name that allowed it to continue operating: ''If it wasn't for our visibility and our track record, we'd be dead right now. ... It's a crisis, but we're still viable.''

There are 10 children staying at Hale House, which has space for 15. The length of the stay varies from child to child; it can be as short as a few months, as long as two years, depending on the rehabilitation of the parent or parents.

With an eye to the future, Hale House is pumping up its fund raising. Backers plan to distribute 100,000 bumper stickers reading ''The city says no. We say yes. Support Hale House.''

While the Dinkins administration has sweated out the story, Republican leaders quickly turned up the heat. A member of national drug czar William Bennett's staff wasted no time in criticizing the Democratic mayor's position.

''I don't know of many places like Hale House in the nation, and not to use it is dreadful,'' said Herb Kleber, deputy director of demand reduction for the Office of National Drug Control.

Mother Hale's position was echoed by The City Sun, a black-owned Brooklyn newspaper that questioned the city's motives in this instance. ''Is it because some people in government don't think black and Latino children are worth saving?'' asked an editorial.

Dinkins responded simply that the charges are not so: ''Before, they needed that kind of (group) care. They have plenty of foster care today. Foster families ... are deemed to be an eminently superior method of caring for children.''