IN A POLICE STATION lobby, Pat Wilcox grabbed and hugged Darryl, the foster son she had raised with her husband for 10 of his 16 years, and said good-bye.

Her eyes brimmed with tears; the lanky teen stooped to embrace the only mother he's ever known.

"I love you. I love you a lot," she whispered, patting his back.

"I love you, Mommy," Darryl said.

He lingered. Darryl's biological father, Darryl Davis, stood waiting, sour-faced, down the hall.

"Go ahead," Wilcox prodded.

The teen clenched and unclenched his fists while blowing air out of his cheeks. He slowly approached his father. Father and son glared at one another, not saying a word.

With a skateboard tucked under his arm and a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, Darryl and his father stepped out of the Morrisville, Bucks County, police station and into an icy rain on a recent December afternoon. Wilcox and her husband, Hal, stood at the glass doors and watched them go. Pat Wilcox collapsed into her pastor's arms.

"They took him away. He's my kid," she said, crying softly as her husband glumly shook his head.

A decade-long battle

It was the second time they had lost Darryl to his father in a tug-of-war that began almost a decade ago. Darryl's father says the teen is his son, plain and simple.

A Family Court judge had awarded Davis custody of Darryl six years ago. The Wilcoxes need to accept that and move on, Davis says.

"He's not with them. I'm the father," Davis fumed inside the police station. "They don't seem to understand that I worked hard to get him."

The Wilcoxes had wanted to adopt Darryl from the time they took him into their home as foster parents when he was a baby. They still consider him their son.

"There's no love there," Hal Wilcox said, referring to Darryl's father. "Darryl is a piece of material to him."

Darryl, 16, is in the middle, torn between the Philadelphia father he was born to and the Bucks County couple with whom he has bonded. The two homes are less than 30 miles away, yet worlds apart:

Davis, 50, lives in a Germantown apartment on a busy city street. He described himself as a sanitation worker who does odd jobs to support Darryl. The Wilcoxes live in Morrisville, a two-square-mile borough on the Delaware River, where Hal Wilcox, 50, coaches football and Pat Wilcox, 60, is a homemaker.

Last month, Darryl ran away to be with the Wilcoxes, who are again fighting for custody of him in Family Court. They hope to resolve the dispute at a Feb. 4 hearing.

Darryl, along with Pat and Hal Wilcox, recently sat down with the Daily News for an interview. Darryl's father, however, declined to be interviewed or to allow the Daily News to publish his son's words.

Instead Darryl's story is told through others.

For Darryl, life in limbo began in January 1993 — five months after his birth. His aunt called the city's Department of Human Services and said that Darryl's father had dropped the infant off at her house a week earlier and never returned. She said that Darryl's mother was on drugs and her whereabouts were unknown.

DHS stepped in and placed Darryl in foster care. He spent nearly a year with another foster family before being placed with Pat and Hal Wilcox in 1994.

The couple said they always wanted to adopt children.

"A lot of people go overseas to adopt when there are so many kids here who need a home," Hal Wilcox said.

Adopted a son

The Wilcoxes first adopted Eric, a 5-week-old, crack-addicted baby from Philadelphia. Then Darryl came into their lives. He was 1. They fell in love.

"He was just a friendly little happy kid," Pat Wilcox said.

The foster-care agency that had placed Darryl with the Wilcoxes through DHS assured the couple that they'd be able to adopt him, the Wilcoxes said.

And here's where DHS and Family Court failed Darryl, setting him on a path of instability and chaos that continues to plague him.

Darryl and thousands of other children entered the city's foster-care system at a time when DHS was widely criticized for moving too slowly to find permanent homes for children. The agency's foot-dragging became an element of a federal class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of some 6,000 children and settled in 1999.

At the time, federal law required DHS to devise a plan for finding a permanent home for a child who had been in foster-care for 18 months or longer.

But the law merely required DHS to make a plan. It didn't mandate a deadline for acting on the plan. As a result, kids like Darryl remained stuck in foster-care limbo, even as loving couples like the Wilcoxes waited in the wings to adopt.

The couple couldn't legally adopt Darryl until DHS tried to locate his biological parents and filed a court petition to terminate their parental rights.

For five years — from 1994 to 1999 — the adoption process went nowhere.

As the years ticked by, Darryl became attached to Pat and Hal Wilcox — and they, to him.

The Wilcoxes affectionately called Darryl "Dew, Dew," the initials of the name they had hoped to give him.

"We always thought we were going to adopt him, and I told this kid all his life that his name was going to be, Darryl Elliot Wilcox," Pat Wilcox said.

The couple came to know the kinds of things that only parents know about their kids, like how Darryl only ate plain pasta and was bonkers over Power Rangers and Scooby-Doo cartoons.

Father returns

Then one spring day in 1999, when Darryl was 6, Pat Wilcox said she got a call from their foster-care agency. The agency said Darryl's father had surfaced and he wanted to see his son.

It's unclear why Darryl's father waited so long to seek out his son. Other than the few comments made inside the Morrisville police station, Davis twice declined to be interviewed for this story.

Initially, Davis was granted supervised visits with his son at a DHS building in Center City.

"Darryl wouldn't leave my side. He just sat on my lap," Pat Wilcox said.

The courts eventually allowed Davis to take his son by himself for a few hours. Those hours turned into an entire day, then a weekend and later, a whole week during the summer, the Wilcoxes said.

Over the next three-plus years, from 1999 through 2002, Davis fought for custody of his son in Family Court.

At the time, Darryl's court-appointed attorney, known as a "child advocate," was Barry Greenspan. Greenspan said Darryl had made it clear that he wanted to be with the Wilcoxes, but Davis was persistent.

"The situation became very contentious," Greenspan said recently. "The father, in all fairness, just thought that these people were trying to take his kid. [The Wilcoxes] just wanted to take care of him and love him... The truth is, [Davis] never had any relationship with Darryl."

For a while, Greenspan said he was able to convince the court to allow Darryl to stay with the Wilcoxes.

In the end, however, Family Court Judge Lisa Richette awarded Davis custody of his son.

Davis "was a black indigent father who was trying to get his life together and trying to do the right thing," Greenspan said. "In the eyes of the court, he was like a star compared to most of these other [parents]."

Pat Wilcox said she promised Darryl she'd always be there for him.

"I told him we would never move," she recalled. "I wouldn't change my phone number...I would always be his mommy and daddy would always be his daddy."

On Dec. 20, 2002, Pat and Hal Wilcox had to hand Darryl over to DHS. The day was sunny and unusually warm. The couple picked Darryl up from school early and gave him his Christmas presents: Bongo drums, a notepad to write down the addresses and phone numbers of his friends in Morrisville, and a large box of his favorite cereal, Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

A DHS worker pulled up in a van. Darryl, then 10, tried to fight her, flailing his arms and legs, according to the Wilcoxes.

Eric Wilcox, then 8, said he didn't understand why this stranger was taking his brother. Eric crumbled on the front porch, screaming and sobbing. The woman told him that she was just taking Darryl out for something to eat.

"They never came back," Eric said recently.

Eric, now a freshman at Morrisville High School, said he kept asking his parents when Darryl was coming home. Eventually, he stopped asking, he said.

The DHS worker dropped Darryl off at his father's apartment in Germantown.

A month later, Hal Wilcox said he contacted Davis and asked if they could have a weekend visit with Darryl, but Davis said, "No."

For the next four years, the Wilcoxes didn't hear from Darryl.

Then he called them.

"I jumped out of my skin," Pat Wilcox said.

Darryl, then 14, said his father had bought him a cellphone and he sneaked a call to them. From then on, the Wilcoxes and Darryl met in secret. They'd pick him up and drive to nearby Chelten Avenue, where they shopped and ate.

Darryl told them his father hit him, according to the Wilcoxes.

This past summer, Pat Wilcox said she called DHS to report an incident between Darryl and his father.

At least twice since Darryl was returned to his father — once when Pat Wilcox called and again when someone else phoned — a DHS worker was sent to Darryl's house to investigate claims of abuse. Neither claim was substantiated, according to DHS.

Anne Marie Ambrose, the DHS commissioner, said she couldn't discuss the details of the case.

She did, however, say that the reports involving Darryl's father did not appear to meet the legal standard of child abuse.When asked by a reporter if he hits Darryl, Davis replied curtly, "Sure." He declined to elaborate.

Boy runs away

In late October, Darryl ran away from home. His father reported him missing in November, according to police.

Initially, Darryl stayed with friends and continued to attend school. Darryl's father called the school every day to check if his son was there, according to David Hardy, the principal at Boys Latin of Philadelphia, a charter school in Southwest Philly.

"I'm not as hard on his father as [Darryl] is," Hardy said. "I think his father is doing everything he can to be a good father."

Hardy said Davis has made mistakes as a parent. But what parent hasn't? he asked, noting that at times, perhaps, Davis has been a bit too tough and overly controlling with Darryl.

Hardy said Darryl stopped showing up for school on Dec. 8. Turns out, he had run off to be with Pat and Hal Wilcox.

On Dec. 15, the Wilcoxes, with Eric and Darryl, drove down to Family Court on 11th Street, off Market. They waited hours and paid $70.50 to file a petition for temporary custody of Darryl.

From there, they drove to Darryl's school topick up his records. Hardy said he couldn't hand over Darryl's records without permission from the boy's father, according to the Wilcoxes. Darryl's dad was furious when he learned Darryl was with Pat and Hal Wilcox.

He called police in Philadelphia and Morrisville and demanded his son back. Morrisville police told Davis that they didn't have the manpower to get Darryl and bring him to Philadelphia. So Davis arranged to pick up his son at the Morrisville police station.

Robert Schwartz, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, in Philadelphia, said it's unlikely that the court would grant guardianship of Darryl to the Wilcoxes.

"When he turns 18, he can go to their house and stay with them forever," Schwartz said. "Under the age of 18, parents generally control who their kids live with."

Meanwhile, the federal foster-care law haschanged. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, child-welfare agencies like DHS must now take steps to terminate parental rights for parents whose child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months.

"I don't think it's ever a lost cause," she said. Darryl's "always going to have a lifetime connection with this really terrific couple who will always be there for him.

"But we also have to value the connection that his dad has to him." *