Her ex-husband often kept their child out later than promised, so Della Watson-Frederick said she wasn't overly concerned that Saturday -- until her 11-year-old daughter's afternoon visit with her father stretched past midnight.

Today, more than two years after the girl, Tihana, was snatched from the District of Columbia and taken to Ohio and then to an unknown destination, the distraught mother is angry both at her ex-husband, who took the child, and at D.C. police, who wouldn't help get her back.

"They said they couldn't take a report or put her into the missing persons computer because there is no law against a parent taking a child," said Watson-Frederick, 35, who gained legal custody of her daughter when the couple divorced in 1976.

The District, according to child advocates and legal professionals, is the only jurisdiction in the country in which parental kidnaping or child snatching is not considered a crime. Federal statutes designed to help trace and return abducted children to their custodial parents are usually useless in the nation's capital because the city's only kidnaping law specifically excludes abductions by parents.

"If you slap your wife, that's a crime; but if you steal a baby from its rightful parent, it isn't," said Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's National Legal Resource Center for Child Advocacy and Protection.

As a result of efforts by Davidson's group and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, both based in the District, the problems of parental kidnaping are now better known by the general public. Child abduction by a parent is now a crime in all 50 states and a felony in 46 of them, particularly in cases in which children are taken across state lines.

In the District, however, which somehow seems to have fallen through the cracks while advocacy groups were lobbying elsewhere, parental kidnaping is not even a misdemeanor.

"There is no law in the District," said Sgt. John Dean, who has handled missing children cases and now works in the child abuse and neglect section of the D.C. police department's youth division.

Dean said parents whose children are snatched by an estranged or former spouse are told that "the child belongs equally to both." Even if the parent has court-decreed custody of the child, he said, there is little D.C. police can do if the child has been taken out of the District.

"It's a civil matter for Family Court, not a criminal matter," he said.

For the same reason, Dean said, police will not enter a description of the abducted child into the FBI's National Crime Information Center computer. Nor will they allow parents to file an official missing persons report with the department.

If children have been taken by a parent, Dean said, then the other parent "knows where they are" and the children are not considered missing.

He said the policy is under review, but that present police procedures require the department to treat parental kidnaping as a domestic dispute.

Child advocates say there is no law stating that a crime must have been committed before local police can enter a description of a missing child into the national computer. Information on runaways is listed all the time, they note, and only victims of parental kidnapings are being denied access to this tool to locate missing children.

D.C. policy, they add, leads to faulty record-keeping. And they call the District's figures on missing children listed with the FBI -- seven in recent months compared with 865 in Maryland and 531 in Virginia -- "ridiculously low."

The District's definition of what constitutes a missing child is particularly frustrating for parents who have sought police help in finding one.

Watson-Frederick, for example, initially knew where her daughter was but soon lost track of her again before she could get her back.

After the abduction, according to Watson-Frederick, her ex-husband returned to Akron, Ohio, where he lived in a special community of Muslims. Her parents, who also lived in Akron, recognized their granddaughter by her voice when they visited their former son-in-law's home and saw the youngster, her face covered by a veil, playing with other children.

Watson-Frederick said that when she visited the home to try to get Tihana back, the child said she wanted to stay. Never a Muslim herself, Watson-Frederick said she argued with her ex-husband over his desire to have the girl with him, because of his religious beliefs. Relieved that at least her parents could keep an eye on the child, Watson-Frederick said she heeded the advice of her family to "let things calm down."

A few weeks later, she said, the Muslim community in Akron, including her ex-husband and her daughter, moved away. She has not seen or spoken to her child since, though she has seen two unpostmarked letters written to her ex-husband's parents here and she thinks her daughter may be in Oakland.

"I would like the police to put her description in the computer and to put out a warrant for him," Watson-Frederick said. "But they tell me I have to go through domestic court."

Another District mother, who asked not to be identified, said she knew precisely where her 5-year-old daughter had been taken when she was carried kicking and screaming from a D.C. school in April.

The woman's husband, a limousine driver from whom she had been separated for four years, had threatened to do this before, she said. "And right after he took her, he called me from the phone in the car and put my daughter on the phone. She was crying for me."

The mother said her estranged husband lives in Wheaton, but that Montgomery County police won't help her reclaim her daughter without an official court order giving her custody. She said D.C. police, including a policewoman who said she had been the victim of a similar child-snatching incident, made an attempt to determine if the child was being treated properly, but that police said their hands were tied with regard to seeing that the child was returned.

Many states have begun to stiffen parental kidnaping statutes so that the crime is considered an automatic felony, but the District hasn't moved to make the offense a misdemeanor. Local child advocacy groups and family law experts have not asked the City Council to consider any bills on the subject, and they say they have only recently realized the extent of the problem.

"The U.S. attorney only indicated to us four or five months ago that parental kidnaping prosecution would not be sought," said Pamela Forbes, who heads the family law division of the D.C. Bar.

She said her group and others believed that the federal Parental Kidnaping Prevention Act of 1980 covered the District. But they have now learned that the law, which mandates enforcement of custody decisions and provides for federal help in locating and pursuing abductors, is useless to District parents unless the city enacts its own statute. The District would have to follow the lead of most states and make parental kidnaping a felony for the federal law to apply.

Forbes said a D.C. Bar subcommittee has been appointed to draft a measure for consideration by the City Council. The bill's major provision, she said, would simply delete that section of the city's kidnaping statute that specifically excludes parental kidnaping as a crime.

An aide to Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8), chairwoman of the council's Judiciary Committee, said Rolark "is very interested" in the parental kidnaping issue but is not considering any legislation on the issue. Rolark was unavailable for comment, the aide said.

James Chandler, director of Missing Children of Greater Washington, said he recently sent a draft of suggested parental kidnaping legislation to the mayor but that he has not been in touch with the City Council.

Watson-Frederick, in the meantime, is still trying to get in touch with her daughter, now 13. The last she heard, she said, her ex-husband had changed his name from Morris Steven Frederick to Sulaiman Abdal Almuquait, and Tihana was being called Ayesha.

"My major concern is her education," said Watson-Frederick, who thinks her daughter is attending Muslim rather than public school. "She's a very bright young lady, and she's missing something."

The mother said she gave no thought to parental kidnaping laws when she moved to the District from Ohio after her divorce. But now she wishes she had.

"If he'd snatched her in Ohio or snatched her in Maryland or Virginia, I could have gotten the police involved," she said. "If you're not ever touched by something like this, you don't ever think about it."