Debra Davis's efforts to get her son returned to her began six years ago, shortly after she unwittingly gave the boy to a man who promised to take care of her child until she "got on her feet."

It ended last May when police arrested Samuel Huffman on a kidnapping charge in Baltimore County and Davis's son was reunited with her in a tearful reunion at D.C. police headquarters.

"I started crying when I saw him," she said softly, brushing her dark shoulder-length hair away from her brow. "I just kept looking at him because I didn't know what to say. He was just as confused and didn't know what to say. He didn't know who I was. When I told him I was his mother, he said, 'You're my mother?' And he kept talking about the other people and calling them mom and dad.It hurt me. For awhile I didn't say anything but I knew to expect this and he kept talking about them and what he had and stuff like that. I just dealt with it and the first time he called me mommy, I said, 'What did you say?' And he started grinning, you know. . . . It's great to have him back."

Davis's story is about one woman's agonizing six-year search for her first son, a search that was marked by frustration, disappointment, heartache and despair.

Social workers cannot say how typical or atypical her experiences are. Every year thousands of children are victims of child snatching -- one parent takes the child from the other parent in a custody battle. But Davis's case is unique: the person who took her child was not related to her. And it is also ironic: she was introduced to Huffman by a city social worker to whom she went seeking help. It was a traumatic chapter in the life of Davis, a soft-spoken, shy secretary who dropped out of school at the age of 14 to have her first child.

In a telephone interview from his Baltimore County home, Huffman denied kidnapping the child. He said he would have returned the boy to his mother but didn't know where she was. "I didn't kidnap her son," he said emphatically.

He contended that when Davis visited her son prior to the time he lost contact with her, "she never told me one time she wanted the kid back." Huffman said he tried to locate Davis but had been unsuccessful.

Davis said her story began in December 1974, when she was living in "a rat-infested apartment" in Northeast Washington. "I was getting public assistance," she said softly. "You know, like in the middle of the month, it would be gone."

Davis said she discussed her financial situation and the difficulties she had in taking care of her children with Nancy Paige, a case worker for the Department of Human Resources, now called Department of Human Services. Davis said Paige sent her to see Samuel Huffman, a friend of the case worker who had earlier told her he was interested in taking care of a child.

Davis said that after talking with Huffman, she agreed to let him take care of her son "until I was able to get on my feet again." Huffman picked up her son on Dec. 20, 1974.

"No way would that happen now," said Audrey Rowe, acting social services commissioner. She said general procedures, which were in effect in 1974 and still are, call for DHS officials to obtain a court order before a child can be taken from a parent and placed in a foster home.

According to court papers, this arrangement was not approved by officials of the social services agency. Rowe nor officials who were at DHR in 1974 could explain what happened in the Davis case. Paige could not be reached for comment.

Two months after Davis gave her son to Huffman, she said she went to Huffman, who owned a funeral home on Kennedy Street where she visited her son, and told him she wanted her son back. It was her second visit to see her son and she noticed that Huffman called her son, Larry, instead of Lorenzo, his real name.

She said Huffman refused to give her son back. Davis said she left the funeral home, but returned later in 1975. She found that Huffman no longer worked there. She said she talked with several funeral directors who told her that they had seen her son with Huffman. But for the next six months, no matter where she looked, she couldn't find him.

She called the police, the FBI, the D.C. Citizens Complaint Center, Legal Aid and even P. David Gavin, an attorney who once represented Huffman. But everyone said they could not help her.

"I was going around like a yo-yo, saying, well, now who else is there to talk to; there's nobody else left," Davis said. "I was tired. I was frustrated. I was disappointed in the police. What kind of crazy law is this? They're there to help you but they don't do anything and if I was rich they'd have my kid for me the next day. Here I am poor and everything. . . ."

During this time, Huffman called once, but Davis was at work and he left no telephone number or address where he could be reached. In July 1977, with the help of another funeral director, she located Huffman and her son at a Silver Spring ambulance service where Huffman was working.

She said she went there and briefly saw Huffman with her son. "I didn't get to touch him or hold him or anything like that," she said of her son. "I went out to make a phone call to see if I could get somebody to help me get him. By the time I got back, the man and my son were gone."

Disappointed, but determined, she continued her search for her child. When she was on the streets and in crowds, she looked closely at little boys to see if one of them might be her son. "My son has very red hair and just about every light-skinned kid I saw with red hair and small eyes like mine, I looked at closely to see if it might be Lorenzo. I wanted to lift up their shirts to see whether or not there was a red mole on their back."

She said she thought about hiring a private investigator, but realized she couldn't afford one. During this time, she worked as a secretary at the Potomac Electric Power Co. and later at the National Rifle Association. However, she said her take-home pay amounted to only about $6,000 a year.

"I looked everywhere I possibly could," she said. "I began to feel like, you know, just forget it and then I would say no, you gotta keep on going because he is out there somewhere."

She again contacted the FBI and Legal Aid. Finally, in August 1979, she talked to Danielle Lombardo, who then worked for Neighborhood Legal Services.

"She is shy," Lombardo said of Davis. "She is not well versed in the law. A lot of people still weren't listening. That was a problem. . . . It was a very sad case. She had not been able to get any help. Different agencies thought they needed to send her to other agencies."

Lombardo said she went with Davis to the police department after listening to her story.

"It sounded like we had a case," said robbery squad Det. John Love, who lent an ear. He took the case to the U.S. Attorney's office, which in turn went to D.C. Superior Court and requested an arrest warrant for Huffman. D.C. Superior Court Judge Nicholas S. Nunzio issued an arrest warrant for Huffman last Jan. 17. Five months later, Huffman was arrested in Baltimore County and Davis's son was returned to her. A D.C. Superior Court grand jury is investigating the incident.