THE STATE DEPARTMENT has an obligation, under U.S. law and international treaties, to protect the rights of foreign diplomats and their families who are serving in the United States. This is not only a legal duty but a practical one because American diplomats serving abroad are at risk of retaliation if these standards are not observed. But welfare authorities in New York City have a very different obligation that is urgent and ordinarily has no international implications at all. They are charged with the life-and-death duty of protecting children from violent abuse by their parents. Though the department and the child welfare workers initially viewed the current case of Terence Karamba from different perspectives, both profess the same objective: to protect this 9-year-old boy.

Terence is the son of a Zimbabwean diplomat assigned to the United Nations and has allegedly been the victim of extreme and unforgivable physical abuse. A public school teacher alerted authorities in New York to his condition, and he was removed from his home and placed in protective custody with a foster family. His father has been sent home. Because of the horrific nature of his torture -- he was said to have been bound with wires, hung from a ceiling pipe and beaten repeatedly with electrical wire -- he is naturally terrified that he will be returned to his father. Still, courts here have ruled that they have no jurisdiction over the child and that he should be returned to his own country. On Friday the Supreme Court removed the last barrier to Terence's return.

Fortunately, it is unlikely that the child will be sent back to Zimbabwe right away. The State Department has said that he will not be removed from his foster home until a psychiatrist says he is ready to go. But that is only a start. Zimbabwean government and private welfare agencies have been contacted and have offered assurances that he will be protected when he returns and placed in the custody of social welfare agencies there. But generalized assurances that he will be all right once he leaves are not enough. Specific plans for his custody should be worked out. The American Embassy in Harare should be alerted to monitor developments, to assist private agencies in helping the boy and to send observers to court hearings if necessary. While this government has no legal authority to intervene in these proceedings, it need not be reticent about acting in a way that shows Americans care deeply about the fate of a child who in effect found sanctuary here and who cannot be turned over to any but caring hands.