The marriage fell apart after 12 years, the stresses of two careers and, finally, a series of beatings. The couple had an expensive house on the District side of Chevy Chase, a little money, a car and the children.

Too bitter to set up joint custody they battled in court for the teen-aged girl and boy. The judge gave the mother custody and the father visiting rights, but he soon moved to Illinois and refused to pay child support after that.

A year later, the boy flew to see his father, and after the court-ordered six weeks had passed, the mother drove to Dulles Airport to meet her son.

He didn't show up. Her phone calls went unanswered, her letter returned unopened, and she agonized over how well he was sleeping and eating and whether someone was helping him with his learning disability.

Six months, several lawyers and investigators and $17,000 later, she tried to take her son back. The boy ran from her -- "It killed me," she said -- but eventually she did get him back. "It took a crazy writ of habeas corpus," she said. "They usually use that in murder cases, you know."

This woman and man -- she prefers anonymity to spare her already troubled children from embarrassment -- were involved in child snatching, playing out a real-life melodrama that takes place thousands of times across the country each year.

The Congressional Research Service estimates that children are "kidnapped" by their parents 25,000 times a year; an official of Children's Rights Inc., a lobby that fights child snatching, puts the figure closer to 100,000.

But the problem is particularly acute in the District of Columbia. Because it hasn't passed a law recognizing custody agreement filed in other states, the District of Columbia -- along with Illinois, six other states and Puerto Rico -- is a haven for parents who want to take their children from the parent who has custody.

There are no reliable figures on the number of children who are snatched from or by parents in this area. But the Children's Rights office here estimates it receives 200 calls a year from area residents who have a problem with a D.C. Custody order.

"I'm really afraid that D.C. acts as a funnel," said attorney Debra Luxenberg, director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, who has counseled scores of women whose children have disappeared. "Once a child is in D.C. the court can rule on custody regardless of the original custody decision. If they (the parent who stole the child) leave (the District), all they can be charged with is contempt of court, Who's going to put police onto searching for somebody who's only going to pay a $150 fine?"

When the federal kidnaping statute -- the so-called Lindbergh Law -- was enacted in the 1930s, parents were specifcally exempted from prosecution for "concealing" "restraining" a child, actions that would subject them to felony charges if the children weren't their own.

"The Justice Department opposed making child snatching a federal crime because the FBI would then be required to get involved in all those cases," said Pat Hoff, a children's rights activist on the staff of Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) "As it is, the FBI will only act if the parent can prove that the missing child's life is in imminent danger. Imagine how many people can prove that when half the time they don't even know where the child is."

To fill this gap most states have passed the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act, a measure that says the state will recognize and enforce child-custody rulings made in other states. To day 43 states -- including Maryland and Virginia -- have passed the law. But the District has not, making it a convenient refuge for child snatcher from the suburbs.

And because the uniform act includes a reciprocity agreements, states that have passd it often won't enforce custody orders made in the District since the District won't enforce theirs.

The District has not passed the uniform act because all legislation concerning the jurisdiction of city courts must be passed by Congress. Since January the city has had authority over its own criminal code and a tougher law against child snatching was included in recent proposed revisions in the District's criminal code. But those revisions are expected to take months, if not years, to pass if they are to become law.

Meanwhile legislation to apply the uniform act nationwide has passed the U.S. Senate but has stalled in the House.

"You feel as though you've followed all the rules and done everything the way you're supposed to and it's all for what? It doesn't mean anything" said one local father who traced the young daughter who was in his custody through four states trying to find her. His ex-wife had taken the child after her visiting period ended and with the help of her parents in Virginia hid the child until he found her a few weeks ago.

Even the unifrom act is not all that uniform. Different states, Hoff said, have different versions of the act, some more stringent than others, and some have more resources to track down violators. Only six states, for instance, will issue felony warrants for the arrest of a suspected child snatcher.

In Virginia, some parents can get felony warrants, but it depends on the judge, said Rae Gummel, cofounder of Children's Rights. In Maryland, child snatching is a misdemeanor, punishable by 30 days in jail or a $200 fine or both.

Even when states have the uniform law on the books, judges are often as likely to back the local parent as the parent with a valid agreement in another state, said Hoff. Judges, she said, "are usually pretty jealous about their own determinations" and want to write the custody agreement themselves.

There is no typical snatching victim, in the District or elsewhere, said Grummel. "We've had calls from parents on welfare, orthopedic surgeons, bricklayers -- basically anybody who's a parent can do it and any who's a kid can have it happen to them." Mothers steal children almost as often as fathers do, now that men are winning custody more frequently, she said. Most children are between 3 and 7, what experts call the "portable years."

Snatching takes many forms. A visting parent the loser in a custody fight, may take the child on a weekend trip and never return, hoping to have the custody order rewritten elsewhere. Or the parent who has custody may flee to prevent the ex-spouse from ever visiting the child.

Parents often plead that they are afraid of their former spouse since wife or child abuse is often a part of the snatching scenario. In most cases though parents take the children and run before a custody order is ever negotiated. "About 70 percent of our calls for help come from people who've lost the kids before they ever got to court," said Gummel.

Child snatching parents go underground, frequently changing addresses, jobs and their names. An Alexandria father tracked down his daughter and discovered that she had moved so often she had no grades for an entire school year. A Falls Church father estimates that he spent $25,000 in a three-year search for his two youngsters who are in the custody of his ex-wife. He finally found them in Seattle.

Even when parents find their children, the entire family may continue to have problems. Bethesda child psychiatrist Lee Haller has treated a number of children who have been snatched by a parent. "They have tremendous feelings of abandonment" he said. "They lose everything they've got except for the snatching parent, some kids will blame the custodial parent for allowing this to happen to them."

Often these feelings are enflamed by the parent who took them away, said Haller, who will tell "out-and-out lies" to win the children over. "I've heard of parents who will say [to the child] 'i took you because your mother hates you' or 'If Daddy finds us, he'll beat the - - - out of you.'"

Worse still are the problems that linger. "Very often the kids can't form a stable peer group; they tend to remain withdrawn especially when they've made repeated moves. Nightmares aren't uncommon, school achievement wears off. They can't feel that the world makes sense and that's no way for a kid to grow up" said Haller, who has testified before a congressional hearing in support of a national uniform child custody act.

The emotional problems can take years of expensive therapy to erase, as the Chevy Chase mother discovered. After she sold her house to raise $10,000 for the legal fees to recover her lost son, she found herself paying $60 an hour for weekly family therapy sessions.

"The one who's really suffering is my 16-year-old daughter," she said. The daughter was not kidnaped by her father, and "here she's got a brother with two parents fighting over him, and a father who didn't even want to see her."

Sen. Wallop has introduced legilation in Congress that would extend the uniform act nationwide and make child snatching a federal misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in jail, a $10,000 fine or both. In addition, it would authorize the use of the federal Parent Locator Service, which helps find child support deliquents, to ferret out child snatchers. The bill has passed the Senate in two different sessions of Congress, but has not moved beyond hearings in the House.

A group of local lawyers led by Suzanne Richards of the American Bar Association's family law committee has volunteered to draft a uniform child custody bill for the District to take to Congress -- since Congress must past laws that affect the jurisdiction of the District's courts.

The D.C. Law Revision Commission has proposed that the District's criminal code be revised to punish the removal of a child under 14 from his or her custodial parent along the lines of Wallop's bill. Hearings were held in Feburary, at which the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office opposed the revision.

"We didn't want to treat parents the same as kidnapers." said Jim McKay of the counsel's office. The office said in a memo at the time: "In view of the problem of identifying the actual custodial parent, we believe that the exception for parents [from the kidnaping laws] should be continued. In the absence of a strong showing [that the chance is needed] we feel that such radical change in the present law is not warranted at this time."

The City Council's Judiciary Committee is now studying the proposed revisions before submitting them to the council.

Said the Chevy Chase woman bitterly: "They [the legislators] won't do anything about it, until it happens to them."