ATLANTA — The phone rings incessantly, perhaps 40 or 50 times a day, in the art-filled, Tudor-style mansion of Faye Yager. Distraught mothers are on the line. So are psychologists and social workers, district attorneys and doctors.
There are gold-framed masterworks on the walls of Yager's opulent home, but the 40-year-old mother of five focuses only on the stack of children's crayon drawings on her kitchen table. The drawings, she believes, just like the people who call her, tell horrid, woeful tales--tales of children being sexually abused by a parent.
Yager and her "underground railroad" are their last, best hope.
With a passion and zeal born of personal tragedy, Yager is the woman out in front of an otherwise clandestine operation, an intricate and elaborate national network that provides sanctuary for parents who believe justice isn't being served in the courts, who believe they have to break the law--and become fugitives--in order to protect their children from being abused.
Since early 1988, she says, she has helped about 300 parents find sanctuary through this secret and controversial network, patterned after the original Underground Railroad of the 19th Century that delivered slaves to freedom. And although Yager likens her effort to the underground movements of World War II that helped the persecuted escape Nazi horrors, her operation has been sharply criticized as a vigilante approach that is hazardous to the children it is trying to protect.
Striking Back at Legal System
In the last year, the informally organized but wide-reaching underground has become Yager's life. It's also become her way of striking back at a legal system that, in her case, went terribly awry.
As a young mother nearly two decades ago, Billie Faye Jones couldn't persuade the courts that her husband--long since her ex-husband--had been sexually abusing their daughter, Michelle.
The ex-husband, Roger Jones, disappeared after he was arrested in 1986 for sexually molesting two young girls and is still on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List. Michelle, now 19, has just moved from a psychiatric hospital to a halfway house. And Yager, remarried for the last 14 years to Dr. Howard Yager, a doctor in family medicine, is helping other women do what she wishes she had done 16 years ago, what she feels guilty about not having done: take her child and run and, she admits, break the law.
"I realized that my child wasn't the only child abused by the legal system after she was sexually abused," Yager says. "There didn't seem to be any kind of assistance for these families. Nobody believed the children."
Building a Network
Although pockets of sanctuary for runaway mothers (and some fathers) had existed, Yager says she has helped connect many of these resources. Today there are more than 1,000 safe houses throughout the country. Although Yager directs the Southern arm of the underground, she says she has contacts in every state as well as in Canada and abroad.
There are thousands of people who in some way participate--families who open their homes to fugitive families, hotel owners who give them rooms for a night or two, drugstore merchants who donate packages of perm and hair-coloring solution so mothers and children can change their appearance, as well as a brigade of volunteers, many of whom were abused as children themselves, who have become expert at falsifying birth certificates, creating false resumes, securing new Social Security numbers.
Underground sources include "everyone from high-level intelligence to grandmothers," Yager says. And many of the techniques they use in doctoring documents and creating disguises and aliases are borrowed from the government's Federal Witness Protection program that provides new personas for government informants.
Perhaps the most celebrated case of a child in hiding is that of the now 6-year-old daughter of Elizabeth Morgan, a Washington plastic surgeon jailed since August, 1987, when she sent her daughter, Hilary, into hiding. Morgan charged that her ex-husband, Eric Foretich, a McLean, Va., oral surgeon, sexually abused their daughter and refused to turn Hilary over to Foretich for court-ordered unsupervised visitation.
Yager, who has visited Morgan in the District of Columbia Detention Center, refuses to say if she knows where Hilary is, or if she assisted in her hiding. She will say, "I promise you that child is just fine. Elizabeth Morgan's child is being well taken care of. She's happy as can be. There isn't any problem. Anybody who tried to turn that child in would be taking their life in their hands. I guarantee you, if anyone got near that child, they'd kill 'em. People feel that strongly about it."