Washington Plastic Surgeon Marks a Year in Jail in Custody Battle
WASHINGTON (AP) _ It’s been one year of quiet persistence in jail for plastic surgeon J. Elizabeth Morgan, who holds the keys to her own freedom in the knowledge of her daughter’s whereabouts.
Although she has committed no crime, on Sunday Dr. Morgan, of McLean, Va., who holds degrees from Harvard, Yale and Tufts, will mark her first anniversary in a solitary cell at the District of Columbia Jail.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. ordered her jailed indefinitely on contempt of court charges until she produces her 6-year-old daughter, Hilary, the centerpiece of a bitter battle between Morgan and her former husband, oral surgeon Eric Foretich of Arlington, Va.
The thought of giving up ″would not cross my mind,″ said the slightly eccentric, articulate Morgan in a recent interview. ″I do my share of crying ... but I cannot think of a more sinful thing to do than trash (Hilary) for my personal comfort.″
Morgan, 41, hid the girl one year ago rather than allow Hilary to have unsupervised visits with Foretich, whom she calls ″unstable, unpredictable, and violent.″ Morgan claims Foretich has been sexually abusing the girl - and her half-sister from a previous marriage - since before Hilary was 2.
Morgan’s claims have been buttressed by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia, which recently directed a lower court to examine previously inadmissable testimony from doctors and psychiatrists that Hilary has been sexually abused.
That court has been hearing civil suits - including Morgan’s damages suit against Foretich and his countersuit of defamation - because the couple lived in Virginia during their marriage. But since Morgan is now a Washington, D.C. resident, Dixon has jurisdiction over the custody case. And he has refused to rule on the allegations of sexual abuse.
Foretich agrees that his daughter has been molested, but he says it was Morgan who committed the atrocities against his daughter. ″It’s sick,″ he said.
Although Foretich recently agreed to supervised visits with his daughter, were she to be found, Morgan refuses to allow it under any conditions except at the request of Hilary and her therapist.
″I don’t see why a child should have supervised visits with their rapist,″ she said. ″I think that’s sick.″
Foretich, whose voice becomes forceful with emotion when discussing the case, says he doesn’t believe the authorities are trying hard enough to find his daughter. He’s offering a $2,000 reward to whoever finds Hilary, who turned 6 last week.
″If Elizabeth Morgan really loved this child, why would she put her off somewhere away from both parents?″ he asked.
Morgan says Hilary is safe and doing well, but will say nothing more.
″I don’t tell anybody anything to do with her,″ she said. ″For me to risk her safety is to risk her life,″ she added, explaining that Hilary has been occasionally suicidal and would not be able to handle more court battles and forced visits with her father.
″It would certainly be the end of her sanity.″
Foretich doesn’t agree. ″She loved being with me; she wanted to be with me ... Hilary and I have been the victims of all this,″ he said.
The bitter divorce and custody battles have been dragging on since 1982, when Morgan left Foretich’s Great Falls, Va., home a week before Hilary was born. The mother was granted custody and Foretich received liberal visitation rights.
Morgan first reported that Hilary was being abused in 1984. Two years later she refused to let Foretich visit his daughter. Morgan’s current jail term marks the third time she has been incarcerated for contempt.
Dixon has ruled that Morgan could remain in jail until Hilary turns 18. Lawyers are appealing that decision.
Former Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs, one of Morgan’s attorneys, says the purpose of contempt of court jailings is to coerce a person to divulge information, and it’s obvious Morgan will not reveal her daughter’s whereabouts.
″If the goal is to punish her ... she has the right to a trial,″ Sachs said.
The attorney also complains about the secretive nature of Morgan’s legal proceedings and wants future hearings to be public, with no evidence or testimony supressed.
Experts in the child abuse profession say it is unusual for a mother to go to jail for so long to protect a child. But child abuse cases are often entrenched in ambiguities.
″In general, cases of sexual abuse are very hard to try and very hard to prove,″ said Anne Cohn, executive director of the Chicago-based National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse. ″So in that sense, Dr. Morgan’s case is not unusual.″
Local child abuse experts generally believe Morgan’s story, ″not that they necessarily believe what she’s done is the right thing,″ said Joan Danzansky, executive director of the organization’s Washington chapter.
″In the end it’s the rare child who isn’t better off having some sort of relationship with both parents,″ Cohn explained.
The National Organization for Women has lobbied in Morgan’s behalf and a support group called ″Friends of Elizabeth Morgan″ has staged a high- publicity awareness campaign aimed at securing her release.
About 50 of Morgan’s supporters staged a demonstration Saturday outside the District of Columbia judicial complex, and NOW President Molly Yard told the group that women ″are themselves being abused when they try to protect their children.″
Morgan herself has gone public with her situation, making personal appeals that have been published in The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report. She has also taken advantage of her jail time to publish a textbook on cosmetic surgery, write several short stories and complete a children’s book.
She finds inspiration from philosophical, historical and religious reading. She cites ″Civil Disobedience″ by Henry David Thoreau ″where he maintains that the law is wrong if it calls for a citizen to be unjust to another citizen″ and William Shirer’s ″The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich″ because ″there are several common elements (in child abuse and Hitler’s Nazi Germany) on a path of unopposed injustices.″
She also spends time thinking about her future with Paul Michel, a judge on the Federal Circuit Court, to whom she became engaged just before she was jailed last August. The couple doesn’t plan to marry immediately after Morgan’s release, however.
″We’ve decided to wait until the child is protected and can return and become part of her new family from the start,″ Michel said.
As for Foretich, he believes the outcome of the case is out of his control.
″I’ve put in the hands of the Lord,″ he said. ″I pray for some resolution through him, and that some sanity will eventually prevail in this case.″