In the four days since a successful Pennsylvania business executive and his wife left their disabled son in a Delaware hospital, little has become clear. They had cared for the boy's needs with love and concern through the 10 years of his life, according to friends and relatives, and money did not seem to be a major concern.

Yet on Sunday, after days spent caring for the sick boy without the nursing help that usually came daily, something changed. Richard Kelso, 62, chief executive officer of a $500-million-a-year chemical manufacturer, and Dawn Kelso, 45, an advocate for the disabled, brought dark-haired Steven into the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, as they had for treatment many times before. This time, Steven had no appointment scheduled. They left him with boxes of belongings and a note stating that they could no longer care for him.

The Kelsos turned themselves in Monday after being contacted by police and were released from jail Tuesday on unsecured bond. Richard Kelso has been charged with abandonment and conspiracy and Dawn Kelso has been charged with abandonment. Both misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in jail, according to a spokesman for the Delaware Department of Justice. Both Kelsos pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Was it an act of hasty desperation by parents who intended to retrieve their son in a few days? Or was it something more cold-hearted? The couple was not answering the door and their attorneys were not taking calls.

For the police there is no question that the Kelsos intended to abandon Steven.

Already the case is drawing national attention, with the outrage of some countered by sensivity from those who say this was not the typical tale of child abandonment.

"At least let's give the family credit for taking the child to a safe place," said Pat Benvenuto, director of children's services for the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Philadelphia.

At the couple's house in a middle-class neighborhood of Exton, Pa., Steven--who had cerebral palsy and other disorders--was usually nursed 24 hours a day, according to those who knew the family. But in recent days, a relative said, the Kelsos could not secure at-home help and had alternated staying up through the night so they could treat their only child continually.

"The nursing company told [Dawn] that they couldn't furnish any nurses through Christmas and there was some kind of misunderstanding there," said Glover Crouch, Dawn Kelso's uncle. "So she and Dick had to provide Steven's care."

That care apparently reached its end Sunday at 10:45 a.m., when Dawn Kelso wheeled Steven into the Alfred I. duPont Children's Hospital in Wilmington, where he was often treated, and asked that he be admitted. Hospital spokeswoman Terri Greenley said that Richard Kelso helped bring in boxes of belongings, while police said he remained in the car.

When an attendant left to get a nurse, Kelso left, according to court documents. She left Steven with boxes that contained toys, clothing and food, the documents say. She left a note that "generally talked about Steven's medications, what his favorite toys are, what he liked to do," according to Lt. Vincent Kowal, spokesman for the New Castle County police. The note also stated, court documents say, "that she could no longer care for her child."

Steven is now in the custody of Delaware's division of family services.

Many who know the family defended what they called an act of last resort by nevertheless loving parents.

"No one does anything like that when they're rational," said Crouch, 74, of New York City.

Pat Mastricola, a neighbor in her fifties, said the Kelsos are private people who appeared to care for their son. They built a ramp off the back deck for him, she said, and took him trick-or-treating in his wheelchair on Halloween.

They were "very private people," she said. "I think most neighbors assumed that [was] because they had their hands full with the little guy. . . . He did not appear at all neglected."

Crouch said this was a first marriage for Dawn Kelso, and that the couple had been married about 10 years. Richard has at least one other child.

Dawn Kelso had two miscarriages and a child who died in infancy before she conceived Steven, who was born about four months early, Crouch said. These abnormal circumstances kept him in the hospital for about 18 months after birth and left him with seizure disorders and difficulty breathing. He could not speak and is often on a respirator.

Steven's care involved diapering him, cleaning his tracheotomy and his nasal passages, Crouch said.

Benvenuto said that there is not enough funding or support services for families with disabled children. She added that she has known other families who relinquished their disabled children.

But Trish Hearn, spokeswoman for Delaware's division of family services, said the circumstances of the Kelsos' actions were "very unusual." Typical child abandonment cases involve parents leaving a child alone at home for some time. "It's unique that someone brought a child, deposited him and left him," she said.

Interviews with those who know the Kelsos reveal them to be a successful family who nonetheless felt the strain of their child's problems. Crouch and Susanmarie Trout, a friend of Dawn Kelso's, said they had never heard her complain of financial difficulties. Their single-family home was recently assessed at $183,180, and police said the Kelsos own two BMWs. But not long after Dawn Kelso turned herself in, when asked where she worked in court documents, she wrote, "Don't have enough nursing hrs [sic] to work."

During his frequent travels for PQ Corp. in Valley Forge, Richard Kelso often communicated with Steven by telephone, because the boy could recognize voices and respond by laughing, Crouch said. Dawn Kelso had worked in a bank, and it was unclear when she stopped working there.

But she seemed to be devoted to a cause inspired by her son. Dawn Kelso was appointed in 1997 by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to serve on the Developmental Disabilities Council, a 20-member board responsible for advising the state Department of Public Welfare on ways to better serve the disabled.

Jay Pagni, spokesperson for the department, said Kelso had completed an accredited Temple University program for social service advocates.

She was a "very strong fighter and advocate not only for her child but for other children as well," said Trout, who met Kelso during the training at Temple University.

Kelso also spoke out on behalf of her son to state Rep. Curt Schroder, who met with her several times in recent years to discuss Steven's needs and the needs of others.

"She wanted to sensitize me as a legislator," Schroder said. "She impressed me as sort of being the squeaky-wheel type."

Others who knew the Kelsos, however, were not as aware of their situation. Richard Kelso has been a board member of Greater Philadelphia First, a civic organization run by chief executives of many of the region's largest businesses, for more than a year. But Shawn Farr, acting executive director of the group, said he "wasn't even aware they had a son." Three neighbors said they knew of Steven but that the Kelsos kept to themselves.

Delaware's division of family services and Chester County, Pa., Children and Youth Services are investigating the abandonment charges and will likely make a recommendation to Delaware Family Court within 45 days. Hearn said the agencies may suggest that Steven be returned to his parents, placed with relatives or placed in foster care.

For the time being, however, Steven will remain at the hospital where his parents left him.

Crouch said Steven belongs with his parents, and that he had not really been abandoned in the typical sense of the word.

"Steven has no concept of what abandonment could mean," he said. "His home away from home is the hospital."

Special correspondent Debbie Goldberg in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Dawn, Steven and Richard Kelso pose in an undated holiday card.