Custody battle envelops child of missing woman

November 17, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- At 5 years old, Amanda Lee Riggins has faced some of life's toughest challenges, brushes with death when she was born and now confusion over the July 1 disappearance of her mother -- a mystery in which her father is allegedly a suspect.

The Elkridge girl is at the center of a custody battle between her mother's parents, with whom she has been living in Pennsylvania, and her father of Elkridge.

She doesn't understand it all, but her pain and frustration prompt an almost instinctive cry.

"Mommy! Mommy! I want my mommy," Amanda says, clinging to her grandfather's neck, tears filling her blue eyes, one afternoon last week at his house in this Pennsylvania coal and steel town 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

Amanda's grandparents, Robert and Delia Cunningham, say the trauma she has suffered because of her mother's disappearance causes her to throw tantrums.

"When she comes home from school, she wants to show her mother her papers, and she's not there," her grandmother says. "Then she has a tantrum."

Four months have passed since Nancy Lee Riggins, 37, vanished from her home in the 6100 block of Adcock Lane in Elkridge. She left her purse, credit cards, car, keys and Amanda -- a child born prematurely, weighing 1.3 pounds and the only child doctors said Nancy Riggins could ever have.

Nancy Riggins' family and friends say she would never have left voluntarily without Amanda.

No one has heard from Nancy Riggins since July 1, when she spoke to a co-worker by telephone. Her husband, Paul Stephen Riggins Jr., told police that when he arrived home about 6 a.m. July 2 from his job in Curtis Bay, he found his daughter asleep and his wife was missing.

Riggins, known to family and friends as Stephen, did not report his wife missing until July 3.

"We're going through hell," says the child's grandfather, Robert Cunningham, 70.

Amanda has been with her grandparents in New Castle since the week her mother disappeared.

In August, Howard County Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. gave the Cunninghams temporary custody of Amanda on the recommendation of the Howard County Department of Social Services, which had found evidence that Stephen Riggins physically abused her.

No details of the alleged abuse charge or its outcome were in the court file on the custody case.

In court documents filed in the custody case, Stephen Riggins neither admitted nor denied that social services had cited him for child abuse. Neither did he admit or deny in those documents the allegation that he is under suspicion of murder in connection with his wife's disappearance.

Howard police will not comment on whether Stephen Riggins is a suspect.

In an interview with The Sun in the summer, Stephen Riggins said he was "like everybody else. I just want to know where my wife is."

Last week, his attorney, Howard Goldman of Laurel, declined to comment on the custody case or the investigation of Nancy Riggins' disappearance.

The Cunninghams say they are trying to stabilize Amanda's life. When she arrived in New Castle, she had frequent nosebleeds, they say. These have stopped.

The Cunninghams say they don't tell Amanda much about why her mother isn't there.

"She's not home, and she didn't do it on purpose," Robert Cunningham tells Amanda, to console her after she broke into tears.

Later, he tells a reporter: "It just breaks my heart. You can't explain to a 5-year-old what has happened."

Experts say that Amanda may be blaming herself for her mother's absence.

"Children at age 5 are self-centered," says Dr. Alice Dvoskin, a Baltimore psychologist and court consultant on the trauma children face in custody and divorce cases. "She's going to think that there's something she did."

By removing Amanda from Maryland, her grandparents say they can help her cope.

The Cunninghams want permanent custody of Amanda and cite the allegation of abuse and allegations in the custody case that Stephen Riggins had an affair with a teen-age baby sitter and that he is allegedly the primary suspect in his wife's disappearance.

In court documents, Stephen Riggins' has denied the allegation involving the baby sitter.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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