An Anguished Mother Demands That Washington Help Find Her Stolen Daughter

updated 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Nadine Liebling's ordeal began on March 16, 1979, when she heard the screams of children from a school bus below her apartment in Cedarhurst, L.I. Before Liebling knew what was happening, her 6-year-old daughter, Mandi, was hustled into a car which quickly drove away. Liebling called police. "I told them to issue an all-points bulletin for the car and stake out all the airports," she remembers. Liebling expected a manhunt; in fact, police did nothing. After hearing descriptions of the kidnapper from the children on the bus, Liebling told authorities, "I think my ex-husband did it." Nadine, now 30, was granted custody of Mandi when she divorced trucking executive Arthur Liebling in 1978. "Telling them was my mistake. The police said they couldn't do anything at all." She has not seen her daughter since that day.

As Nadine Liebling has discovered, she is far from alone. A Library of Congress study estimates that 25,000 children are snatched by parents in violation of court custody orders every year. One parents' group puts the number at 100,000. Most of the children are never found. Says Los Angeles criminologist Michael Agopian: "The recovery rate is probably better for stolen cars and lost animals." Nadine Liebling is determined to change all that. This spring she persuaded a Long Island district attorney to press felony kidnapping charges against her ex-husband. Now she and her lawyer, Andrew Yankwitt of the Long Island-based Citizens League on Custody and Kidnapping, are trying to force the federal government for the first time to enter a custody kidnapping when it does not believe the life of the child is threatened.

Although a U.S. law allows the FBI and the Justice Department to intervene, they have never taken a custody case unless the child was endangered. "It's opening a whole can of worms," Liebling admits, with some understatement. "Mine is not the only case." But it is one of the most harrowing. Since her daughter disappeared, Liebling has received packages of what she believes are Mandi's nail clippings and locks of her hair in the mail. Nadine claims they were sent by her ex-husband, and that she received phone calls from him on Mandi's birthday and Mother's Day. His message: "You will never see your daughter again." Even that behavior has not compelled federal authorities to act. "The letters are extremely nasty," concedes Marilyn Gainey Barnes of the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn, which would have to approve any FBI action. "But they don't suggest the child will be harmed."

That statement reflects a longstanding Justice Department policy—and the source of deep resentment among worried parents. "People who steal children are usually not emotionally stable," says Barbara Freeman of the Stolen Children Information Exchange in Huntington Beach, Calif. "Many people who steal children abuse them. If they are truly concerned with the child's welfare, they will do something legal to change the custody ruling." Arthur Liebling's record, Nadine says, should cause concern. She claims that he beat her and Mandi, forced them to watch pornographic movies, once neglected to give the child her asthma medication and, during one visitation period, let Mandi go a day without food. In November 1978 he allegedly ran into Nadine with his car. The local prosecutor brought assault charges, but a grand jury declined to indict. Armed with this evidence, Yankwitt has appealed the U.S. Attorney's ruling to the Justice Departments Washington; if they still refuse to enter the case, he says he will go to federal court. He has also testified before a Senate committee considering a bill that would force the FBI to intervene in such cases; no action on that legislation is expected soon.

Arthur Liebling has reportedly been sighted in Long Island near Nadine's home. In a civil suit, his mother, who lives in Clearwater, Fla., took the Fifth Amendment when asked about her son's and Mandi's whereabouts. Although both New York and Florida police have tried to find him, they lack the nationwide resources of the FBI. Nadine hopes that her appeal, the threat of a lawsuit, and the possibility of legislation will prompt the bureau to act. Now remarried to a free-lance writer, Larry Klausner, she is more determined than ever. "Mandi knew Larry. My marriage would have meant family for her, and she wanted that," says Nadine, who has scraped together a $10,000 reward for information leading to Arthur's arrest, conviction and, she hopes, Mandi's return. "I have to be committed to the idea that I will see her again."

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