On a chill, windswept Columbus Day, baby John Doe stood behind the rusty iron gate of an asphalt city playground, tears pouring down his face, leaving tiny wet trails across the front of his half-zipped snow suit and Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas. He wasn't hungry, his bottle was half full of milk. He wasn't sick. He was just alone, abandoned near the monkey bars at the Pilgrim Baptist Church.

No one knows how long baby John Doe stood by himself on the playground. He was found at 3 p.m. Monday by a woman on her daily rounds, delivering The Watchtower, a religious newspaper published by the Jehovah's Witnesses. No one knows who he is; authorities believe he's about 18 months old. Though not very solid or enlightening, there was one clue:

Charles Davis, a custodian at Pilgrim Baptist at 700 E St. NE, was cleaning up at about 7 a.m. yesterday when, he said, "The phone rings and it's a young woman, she sounded pretty calm. She says, 'Did you find a baby in the church playground?' and I says 'No, I didn't, but some woman did and she gave it to the police.' Then she said thank you and hung up. God rest her soul."

If the mother doesn't change her mind and reclaim the child, he'll eventually have a new name. But the youngster's future was further clouded last night when police disclosed that they had located a woman they believed to be the mother.

They refused to give details because of the sensitive nature of the case, but did say that the woman had been ordered to appear today before a representative of the U.S. Attorney's office, at which time it will be decided whether she will be charged.

Meanwhile, the boy's immediate future rests in the courts, with prospects ranging from return to his mother to a temporary home.

Abandonment is not a widespread problem in the District of Columbia, according to attorney Michael Cobb of the juvenile section of the city's corporation counsel's office. In about 20 to 30 cases a year, he said, parents drop their children off at a day-care center or a similar facility and never return to reclaim them. Less frequent are cases, like baby John Doe's, where infants are just left somewhere, in the proverbial basket on the steps of a neighborhood church or, in one case earlier this year, left naked during the winter between two parked cars on the curb outside the Roy Rogers Family Restaurant on New York Avenue NW.

The unusual thing about this case, said D.C. police youth division officer Gloria Donohoe, is the child's age. "It's kind of strange that the mother waited so long to decide about abandoning the child. Usually, children are abandoned when they are only a few months old. After a year or so, mothers develop an attachment, a maternal instinct.

"The mother was apparently under some kind of emotional stress . . . I don't think a mother who apparently cared so well for the child, kept it healthy and in new clothes, would, as it appears, just dump it," said Donohoe. "I get the feeling she is concerned because she placed the child in a secure area where he couldn't wander out into the street, and she did call this morning to see if he had been found. She must have some bad problems to deal with."

For now, baby John Doe is the ward of the city's Department of Human Services, being kept at St. Anns Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville, a Catholic-run home for children up to six years of age that allows the District to use six of its 108 beds at a cost of $35 a day or emergency temporary care. Besides St. Anns, the District has contracts with five private families and two other area institutions for similar services.

The child is on a court-ordered, five-day hold while police and social workers comb the District for signs of his mother. If the parent or parents are found, they will have the chance to explain the apparent abandonment, according to Assistant Corporation Counsel Lori McManus. "For instance," she said, "if the mother got sick or something and was rushed to the hospital and didn't realize the child was being abandoned, he could be returned without any problems."

However, she said, if the parents are found and attorneys believe the abandonment was due to neglect, the case could be taken to court. If there was a finding of neglect, she said, the child could be restored to his home under protective supervision, or placed in an institution or a foster home, with provisions for a case review by the court every six months or so.

Parents in such a case could also be required to contribute to the child's support while the child was in custody or for medical bills and attorney's fees incurred in the case.

"The law favors returning the child to his home if it can be done without endangering the safety of the child. If an attempt to permanently abandon the child is found, then the parental rights can be terminated through court proceedings and the child can be made eligible for eventual adoption," McManus said.

In the meantime, however, baby John Doe will remain in the custody of the Department of Human Services, an infant without a home, a child without a name.