Custody Battle Shifts From Washington to New Zealand
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The search for Hilary is over. But the war for her has widened.
America’s most famed child custody battle has boiled across two oceans in just the past week, first into the courtrooms of Britain, and now, into those of New Zealand. Hilary Foretich, 7 1/2 years old, has been found, by her father’s investigators, living with her maternal grandparents in Christchurch.
And there, presumably within days, the fight which has cost the girl’s mother alone nearly $2 million - and more than two years in jail - will resume. Both parents intend to be there, with the prospect that another nation’s courts will become embroiled in a case which already has produced more than 450 pleadings before U.S. judges, with no end in sight.
Hilary is the daughter of Jean Elizabeth Morgan, the 42-year-old Washington plastic surgeon who has persistently charged her ex-husband, Eric Foretich, with sexually abusing the child. Having failed to support those allegations to the satisfaction of any court, she sent Hilary into hiding and spent 759 days in jail rather than accord Foretich his legal visitation rights, an act which earned the mother, in countless hearts, a martyr’s stature.
Her sympathizers included the Congress and President Bush, who signed the legislation which freed her last September from municipal Judge Herbert Dixon’s indeterminate sentence for contempt.
Foretich, 45, a dental surgeon in suburban Falls Church, Va., never yielded, meanwhile, in his search for Hilary.
He made several trips to Great Britain, where, just days ago, a BBC talk- show producer, Di Burgess, was forced under court order obtained by Foretich’s attorneys to reveal what she had learned in the wake of filming a documentary on the case. And that, in short, was that the child, under the name Ellen Morgan, had attended a girl’s prep school in Plymouth, England, in the 1987-88 school year, while living with her grandparents.
Within days, Foretich’s investigators tracked the older couple, William and Antonia Morgan, to their current home in New Zealand, at Christchurch, about 190 miles southwest of the capital city of Wellington. It had long been speculated that Elizabeth Morgan had entrusted Hilary to her parents, but their whereabouts remained a mystery.
Their role discovered, the elder Morgans obtained an order from a New Zealand Family Court on Friday which temporarily entitles them to retain custody of Hilary, according to Roger Carson, detective chief inspector in Christchurch. He said a further hearing is scheduled this week.
″I ... found my daughter,″ Foretich said early Saturday before leaving for New Zealand. ″I’m elated.″
But neither he nor Ms. Morgan would predict what legal fates await them or Hilary. ″I don’t have any illusions that this is going to be easy,″ Foretich said.
Ms. Morgan, meanwhile, seemed almost relieved that her three-year secret was out. While declining to reveal whether she had had any contact with Hilary since her release from jail, she said: ″I can tell you I talked to her at length today. And we had a heavenly conversation.″
Ms. Morgan and her new husband, U.S. Appeals Judge Paul Michel, spent several hours Saturday with her attorney, Stephen Sachs. Their first objective: to convince Dixon, the Superior Court judge who jailed her, to return her passport, without which she cannot legally travel to New Zealand. They plan to argue for that on Monday.
Ms. Morgan declined to give an accounting of her parents’ travels, or to say how long they have been in New Zealand.
She said, though, that she had been assured that New Zealand has very strong statutes protecting children, and that the court there will make no decision until Hilary has been evaluated by an expert in child sexual abuse. But she also acknowledged that many nations routinely respect the findings of one another’s courts in child custody cases.
″I’m not a foreteller of the future,″ she said. ″I would like to think that our courts would offer her what I’ve been asking. At the moment, if I brought her back today, she would not be protected.″
For years, each parent has accused the other of making Hilary’s life a nightmare. In the U.S. courts, the case is called Civil Action No. D 684-83. To the American public, it is the Elizabeth Morgan Story, even as every judge along the way has deemed it unsupported by evidence.
Ms. Morgan has claimed there was physical evidence - scarring - that Foretich sexually abused their daughter. To that, Foretich countered in court that the scars were the consequence of injuries caused by Ms. Morgan herself to stage photographic evidence to bolster her claims. A Virginia judge dismissed the mother’s suit for exclusive custody when she refused to produce her daughter in court.
Foretich, recently separated from his fourth wife - Elizabeth Morgan was the third - has said ″I’ve made some poor decisions in some of the women I’ve been associated with ... but I did not rape my children. That I did not do. I’d blow my brains out first.″
By his account, Ms. Morgan ″is insane ... totally evil.″
At one point, Ms. Morgan also accused Foretich’s parents, both over 70, of sexually abusing Hilary on the girl’s visits to Foretich’s Early Georgian home, modeled after the President’s House at his alma mater, the College of William and Mary.
By their account, they had driven up from Gloucester Point, Va., each time Hilary was brought to their son’s house, on the advice of a lawyer friend who had advised him to keep the place in ″wall-to-wall people″ because of a developing trend in child custody cases - accusations of sexual abuse.
Among others who visited the house at the same time as young Hilary was Foretich’s other daughter, Heather, now 10, born to his second wife, Sharon Foretich. And, in 1985, Sharon Foretich, following Morgan’s example, accused him of sexually abusing Heather.
Foretich contended that his second and third wives had colluded on their cases, and that Heather had been coached. He took and passed two lie-detector tests on his behavior with the two children, and a Virginia court ruled that Sharon Foretich had not proved her allegation, either.