SEA CLIFF, N.Y. -- On one of the nights when Terence Karamba thought he was about to be sent home, he slept on the stairs of the suburban home where he is in foster care -- "so he would be ready to run," in the words of one of his custodians.

On another night, Terence's foster father says, he slept under his bed, out of reach.

"Home" is 7,500 miles away, in Zimbabwe, where an angry government awaits the 9-year-old's return. A justly angry government, in the view of the State Department. Not at the boy, but at the breach of international law his presence here represents.

For the past several weeks Terence, as the son of an expelled Zimbabwean diplomat, has been the subject of an international wrangle -- a conflict, as much as anything else, of spheres.

On the one hand is the entire system of international diplomacy, and the State Department, charged with upholding it. The paramount concern of this sphere is the principle of diplomatic immunity, which, it has argued in court, demands the boy's immediate return to Zimbabwean custody.

In the other sphere is a little boy who until a month ago was treated so badly that today he fears for his life. This sphere has its own bureaucracy, dedicated to a process far more ambiguous but to a principle no less absolute: that any child is owed protection from abuse and surcease from the fears that inevitably follow treatment as brutal as Terence is said to have suffered at his own father's hands. Lawyers for this side want to prove that diplomatic immunity was never intended to prevent someone -- even a 9-year-old boy -- from seeking protection through the courts. And child care specialists on this side wish, more modestly, for time to prepare Terence to return to his homeland.

The legal battles to which the conflict has given rise reached the Supreme Court last weekend, when Justice Harry A. Blackmun stayed an order that would have allowed Terence's return to Zimbabwean custody despite his pending application for asylum. The full court will consider today whether to lift that stay.

For the past five weeks, ever since Terence's public school in Queens notified authorities that he might have been abused, the bureaucracies arrayed on either side of him have done what they had to do. Each has, arguably, operated at its best. In any event, each has approached Terence -- one regretfully, the other warmly -- as a case like any other.

And each is hoping to find a solution on what has been identified, at last, as the middle ground. State insists that it was never its intent to pack the boy off to his father. The boy's temporary custodians note that they have hoped all along to see him restored to his country and, if possible, to some part of his natural family.

"Our primary goal has been and remains protecting the welfare of Terence in a manner consistent with our obligations under international law," runs the official State Department line on the matter. Having read aloud this mouthful, an officer adds, "I guess what I really want to say is that the State Department is not an uncaring mass."

"If common sense prevailed in this, I don't think there is anyone who would disagree with the approach that we're taking," says the man with whose family Terence is living, who speaks anonymously to protect the boy's privacy.

"To see the boy, and hear the boy, and see the evidence of what he went through, is to understand it's common sense."

No one disputes that something awful happened to Terence Karamba, and happened repeatedly.

The government of Zimbabwe has not commented on the specifics of Terence's case, and a wall of silence now surrounds his family. But this much is known: On Dec. 11, the New York City Human Resources Administration filed a petition in state court alleging that Floyd Karamba, an administrative attache' to the Zimbabwean U.N. Mission, abused Terence and his two sisters, Sandra, age 7, and Wendy, age 3. The children's mother, Lydia -- who as of yesterday was still in seclusion in New York -- was also cited for failing to take any action to protect the children.

Although the petition alleged that Karamba beat his daughters with a belt, it charged that Karamba's abuse was largely focused on Terence. Ten days before the petition was filed, a teacher at P.S. 178 in Queens had reported that Terence came to school "with a bruised and swollen face," according to a report by the school principal. When the school's guidance counselor asked the Karambas about it, the report says, Floyd Karamba said, "I beat him." The counselor warned the Karambas that any further signs of abuse would be reported to authorities. On Dec. 10, Terence came to school with "a Band-Aid covering a severe bruise on his forehead."

Only five weeks before, in Manhattan, 6-year-old Elizabeth Steinberg had died from injuries allegedly inflicted by her adoptive father, prompting a wave of newspaper editorials charging that the system -- including the school system -- had failed. In Terence's case, after the second time possible abuse was noticed, the system responded promptly.

According to the petition, about three weeks before Dec. 10, Floyd Karamba "tied Terence's forearms and legs together with wire, and repeatedly struck him with an electrical extension cord ... The wire wrapped around Terence's forearms cut through the skin, and he currently has several linear scabs on each forearm as a result."

"The respondent father has, on several occasions," it continued, "removed all of Terence's clothing, tied his arms behind his back with wire or rope, his legs together, and hung him by his bound arms from a pipe in the basement of the case address. After doing so, the respondent has then beaten Terence with an electrical extension cord. As a result, Terence has numerous linear marks, in varying stages of healing, on his chest, back, and legs ..."

One of those times, it said, Karamba untied his son from the pipe while he was still bound. Unable to break his fall, he landed on his face.

On other occasions, "The respondent father has ... choked Terence's neck, and as a result, he currently has several marks on his neck therefrom."

Terence later told a psychologist that a typical beating would consist of as many as 20 blows, and that the abuse started before the family moved here from Harare, Zimbabwe, in September 1986.

Zeyda Fernandez, director of foster care in the Queens branch of the privately funded St. Christopher-Ottilie Services for Children and Families, says she sees a child as badly abused as Terence only once or twice a year.

When a State Department psychiatrist examined Terence a month later, on Jan. 10, he asked to see Terence's arms and back. "There were many healed scars -- 15 or 20 at least," he wrote.

Yet several of the men and women now involved in Terence's care say the beatings were not the worst part. The worst part was that, as noted in a psychologist's report filed in court, Terence's father would force his mother and two sisters to watch, and to laugh. "Literally laugh, and scorn, and jeer at him," says Tom Ring, assistant executive director at St. Christopher-Ottilie.

"The shame-inducing aspects have also been significant for him," says psychologist Leonard Gries, the agency's director of mental health services.

An Affair of State

New York's petition alleging child abuse was dismissed at the request of the State Department because the Karambas, under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, enjoyed blanket immunity from the jurisdiction of any U.S. court. The State Department, which affirmed in court documents that there was "clear evidence of child abuse," took the most extreme measure available, expelling Floyd Karamba from the United States.

The department then called for Terence and Sandra, who also had been removed from the home, to be released to the care of the U.S. mission at the United Nations, noting that they too were immune from local jurisdiction and promising, "The State Department will care for the children until firm arrangements are made with the Republic of Zimbabwe assuring the safety of the children here and in Zimbabwe." The city, meanwhile, had placed the two in a foster home through St. Christopher-Ottilie, which is the largest of several private organizations to which the overburdened city government subcontracts the care of clients. On Dec. 22, when the State Department obtained the order it sought, the St. Christopher caseworker discussed it with the children.

"And Sandra wanted to go back," says Executive Director Robert J. McMahon, "and we had no custody, and no reason not to return her, and so we returned her."

Ring picks up the narrative: "But Terence was quite definite that he would not. Would not. And there wasn't any way to force him to go, other than to drag him bodily out."

And so the lawyers went to work. The Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society, which had been appointed to represent the children in Family Court, launched a bid to retain custody, arguing that the State Department, subject to pressure from the government of Zimbabwe, "may arguably not be able to act in his best interests to protect him if an attempt is made to return him to Zimbabwe." And St. Christopher-Ottilie filed, on the child's behalf, to request political asylum in the United States.

"We did it as a way of garnering some time," says McMahon, "feeling that if we didn't get time there was a chance for serious -- that he could seriously harm himself, and feeling that there was a chance of likely severe psychological trauma" if he were returned immediately to the custody of Zimbabwe.

But the crux of State's argument is that to chip away at diplomatic immunity by exception is to undermine it entirely. Its blindness to gradations of behavior, its deafness to the cries of any victims to whom it might deny justice, is precisely its efficacy.

"If courts in the United States felt free to exercise their jurisdiction in child custody cases, other countries could follow our lead by taking custody of the children of our diplomats," argues the government's brief filed Tuesday in the Supreme Court. "The good intentions of the courts and of the court-appointed guardian ad litem {McMahon} and the clear factual basis for the complaints of abuse underlying this dispute would be of little aid in other countries to distinguish between this case and an unfounded one brought against a U.S. diplomat, because the line separating good faith from bad would always be drawn by the courts of the receiving State."

As if to bear out State's argument, Zimbabwe's foreign minister on Wednesday threatened an unspecified reprisal against Americans unless Terence's "abduction" ended immediately.

"Despite the foreign minister's statement, nothing has changed as far as" the assurances the State Department has that Terence will come to no harm in Zimbabwe, says State spokeswoman Mary Swann. Among those assurances, from "senior officials of the government," are that Terence will be escorted back to his homeland by a government official and met at the airport by a caseworker from the Department of Social Welfare. Initially, at any rate, he will be placed in foster care. Above all, says State, "neither we nor the authorities are considering turning Terence over to his father for further abuse."

The Human Factor

For now, Terence Karamba lives on Long Island with a mother and a father and two little boys, one of them his own age. He likes television, draws pictures of pirates and Martians, and follows the Minnesota Vikings. He has strong ideas on the relative merits of McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and sometimes, without preamble, climbs into his foster father's lap. The man, who is an employee of St. Christopher-Ottilie, says that with a few exceptions he and his wife treat Terence as a member of the family.

"The decision to resist sending the child back was based on the child's terror of going back," McMahon says. "We don't see ourselves as do-gooders rescuing children from their families."

He emphasizes again and again that his agency has no substantial disagreement with the State Department over ends: The question is not whether Terence should return to his mother and his country, he says; the question is when, and what shape he will be in when he gets there.

"I think that we have a little boy who is terrorized. We want to get him back to his mother and his country without doing him any harm."

But a short-term problem remains: Only four weeks ago, "He was completely terrified of being sent home," Fernandez says. "His terror impressed everyone he saw." When Gries first interviewed him on Dec. 23, Terence said he would run away before consenting to return.

As his cases have rocketed upward through the courts, mostly on a losing course, Terence has been repeatedly readied. "There was a period there where every day they were picking him up the next day," says McMahon. On New Year's Day, following an appellate ruling that he must be turned over, his foster father carried him to the car ("he was struggling a bit") for the drive to the office of the agency's lawyer. Only blocks from the house, Terence removed his seat belt and tried to jump from the car.

"I decided I wasn't going to risk his safety," says the man who cares for him. But once they were home, true to his word, Terence tried to escape through a second-floor window. The man restrained Terence while his wife explained the situation over the phone and a reprieve was obtained.

"He thought it was a good trade-off to go out a second-story window," says the foster father. "It wasn't until half an hour after knowing he wouldn't be taken that day that he talked to me."

Gries, who meets with Terence for treatment twice a week now, says that "Given his father's governmental position, he pretty much generalized to the whole government of Zimbabwe."

As Gries told a district court judge, "I have to stress that for him any approach towards {turning him over to Zimbabwe} is tantamount to going directly to the basement of his house and being ready for the next whipping ... If you had a fear of an animal or a dog of any other object, {it} would be tantamount to my asking you: I want you to get over that fear today. I want you to come be with the snake or what have you, and since you belong over here with this feared object this is where you have to be and everything will be okay."

In the more Orwellian language of the State Department, "The immediate objective is to reduce the psychological stress on Terence that derives from his mistaken belief that he will not be protected from his father if he leaves his current environment and returns to Zimbabwe."

What St. Christopher-Ottilie asks, then, is a chance to effect what it calls, in its own jargon, "a therapeutic transfer." The goal, says McMahon, is to get to the point "where he walks willingly out of the home that he's in, and into some other car and into some other house."

In the last 10 days, the State Department has shown increasing sympathy toward this goal. It has engaged its own consultant psychiatrist, Donald Heacock, whose conclusions substantially matched Gries'. He and the staff of St. Christopher-Ottilie refer to each other with mutual praise, and the government, in its most recent brief, said it "intends to be guided by Dr. Heacock's professional advice" concerning how long it will take to prepare Terence to go.

On the other hand, Legal Aid's original point remains: The State Department may by definition be more susceptible to pressure from a foreign government than is a contract agency for the city of New York. Once the department has physical as well as legal custody of Terence, what happens if the government of Zimbabwe demands his immediate return?

The State Department declines to answer such a hypothetical question. "We have to get to one crossing before we get to the next," says Swann, the State Department spokesman.

And another major sticking point remains. No one -- except, perhaps, the government of Zimbabwe -- knows where Terence's mother stands.

Mother and Child

Yesterday morning, for the sixth time in seven days, Terence's foster father prepared him for a visit with his mother. Each meeting had been arranged by officials of the U.S. Mission, acting on behalf of their colleagues at the Zimbabwean mission. Each earlier meeting fell through, without explanation. Neither mission returned calls from The Washington Post about the matter, and while the Zimbabwean government has said that the two girls are staying with another Zimbabwean official, it has not commented on Lydia Karamba's whereabouts.

The last time mother and son saw each other was Christmas Eve, in an encounter that a Legal Aid lawyer who attended described in a memorandum filed in court as "an experience that neither {Terence} nor I suspect anyone else present will ever forget. Even the security person, a prototypical former Marine officer, was shaken." Terence covered his face with his jacket for almost the whole meeting. She tried repeatedly to talk to him, but he opened his jacket only occasionally to accuse her of letting his father beat him.

After the visit, the attorney wrote, "In the elevator Mrs. Karamba said to either {Terence's case worker} or to all of us, 'You're spoiling him.' The response was obvious, but wisely no one made it."

Nonetheless, Gries, McMahon and Heacock all believe that the mother's participation is key to both the immediate problem of returning Terence to Africa and any long-term healing of his emotional scars.

"That's been our major frustration to date," says Gries, "that we haven't been able to take even one step in that direction." Gries also believes that despite substantial anger at his mother, Terence wants to see her.

Yesterday, Terence consented to ride into New York City. "He wasn't very anxious to go, actually -- he wasn't ready to do it then," Ring says. "When they got to the underground garage at the U.N., he refused to get out of the car." Ring said the U.S. Mission asked Zimbabwean officials if the mother could come to the garage to talk to the boy, but for whatever reason, she did not. "And so what had set out to be at least the beginnings of a relationship turned out to be nothing."

Ring says he and others at St. Christopher-Ottilie are confused and "very upset. It doesn't bode well for what might be his future with his family. I wouldn't want to put any judgments about the woman, but it doesn't give you a good feeling."

Two weeks ago the staff began talking about how long it might take to ready Terence for a return to his future. Ring says, "We've said to the State Department, six weeks? Two months? Three months? We've never wanted to tie it down, because it could be very quick, and it could take longer than we anticipated. Based on today's experience, it could take longer than we thought. Because you have to have two willing people in a case like this."

Whenever Terence has a dispute with his foster brother -- over a choice of television shows, or cookies, or toys -- they convene a court to resolve the matter. But for now, he knows little about the tortuous course of his real legal affairs. "We don't tell Terence much about what's going on legally, because it's been a roller coaster," says his foster father. "But none of us would lie to him, either."

A week or so ago, McMahon tired of the roller coaster nature of the courts. He says, "We finally decided, the hell with everything that's going one out there, we're not -- that ain't our shtick. We're into, let's sit down ... and act like he's with us for a while, and act like we're trying to put his life back together. And that's what we've been doing."

"You know," he says, "when you look at this case from our point of view, we haven't had a hard decision. There hasn't even been a decision that you would think twice about ... We're not losing sleep trying to work on the next day's strategy; it falls out. We've been at the eleventh hour a few times, we've been right on the brink, and hope dimmed a little bit, but we've always been rescued, too."