Fears for a child in despair Grandparents seek to care for girl whose mother disappeared

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.

'Going through hell'

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, who retired eight years ago from the collections department of the local power company. "I've never been in hell, but it feels like we're in it now."

Amanda has been with her grandparents in New Castle -- in the house where her mother grew up -- 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.

Allegations

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.

Seeking stability

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."

A child's emotions

Experts say that if she follows the typical pattern, 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. "The world revolves around them. She's going to think that there's something she did."

Amanda may be wondering, "Why isn't my mommy here and why isn't my daddy here?" Dvoskin says. "There's an overabundance of issues with this kid. In this kid's case, my God, she's lost everything."

The Cunninghams' house -- brown and white, of wood and brick -- sits in a quiet neighborhood with neat lawns. Her room is on the second floor, a floor below her mother's old room.

She doesn't like sleeping in her mother's old room -- a room she and her mother used to share when they visited New Castle -- the Cunninghams say, it's too upsetting for her.

Small-town atmosphere

But they say she is mostly bright-eyed and playful and comforted by New Castle, a city of 100,000 with a small-town feel.

For longtime residents, New Castle is a family-oriented place, where everybody knows everybody -- or is related to everybody.

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