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Southbound Feud : Custody: New Zealand, a potential haven from U. S. family law, is the latest battleground in the custody war over Hilary Foretich.


CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — As classes let out at the Selwyn House private school for girls, the happy children in their brown blazers and Panama hats contrast sharply with the women pulling up in their four-wheel-drive station wagons and Jeeps.

The mothers are in a foul mood. As they quickly whisk their daughters away, some even spit out obscenities at the reporters who are staking out the school in vain hope of glimpsing Hilary Foretich.

"Leave her alone!" one passing motorist shouts.

"Hey, we're just doing our job," a sheepish Rick Kirkham of "Inside Edition," who had flown in from New York City, mutters to no one in particular.

Already at the center of perhaps America's most wrenching child custody battle, Hilary, 7, has suddenly become New Zealand's most famous pupil, now that her 2 1/2 years in hiding have come to a pandemoniac end.

Her mother, Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, spent more than two years in a Washington jail on a civil contempt charge for refusing to divulge Hilary's whereabouts. Her father, Dr. Eric Foretich, accused by Morgan of sexually molesting Hilary, finally tracked Hilary down to this scenic South Island city, where she is living with Morgan's parents.

Foretich has vehemently denied Morgan's accusation, contending it was Morgan who did the molesting.

As the focus of the nasty, long-running dispute between her divorced parents shifts here, the usually courteous citizens of Christchurch are getting more than just a taste of the news media's excesses.

Like it or not, New Zealanders and their particular way of dispensing family justice have been thrust into the harsh limelight and both are being sorely tested.

After four appeals and $1 million in legal bills in American courts, the fight between Morgan and Foretich is being reborn half a world away.

Just as Congress and President George Bush got dragged into the squabble back in the United States, so now are New Zealand's prime minister and members of Parliament being drawn into the escalating debate.

It remains to be seen whether New Zealand's family court can do any better in dealing with the seemingly intractable dispute.

But the legal system appears determined to give it its best shot.

In Washington Friday, the D. C. Court of Appeals released Morgan's passport, making her departure to New Zealand imminent. She hopes for a reunion as far away as possible from the international glare of attention that has dogged Hilary since her discovery.

"I don't want to arrive with 1 million photographers there to watch me embrace Hilary," Morgan said in an interview Friday. "That is not my idea of looking out for my daughter.

"This past week has been an enormously upsetting one for her," Morgan continued. "I think the first thing that's important for Hilary is to be allowed to get back to her ordinary life, and not to have another unexpected eruption, no matter how welcome. The best thing I can do for her is to let her life settle down and go on from there.

"Obviously, I want very much to see her, but only in a way that's right for her," Morgan added.

Morgan and Foretich--she a once-prominent plastic surgeon, he an oral surgeon--separated shortly before Hilary's birth. Morgan gained custody of the child. Then came a custody challenge by Foretich and allegations of sexual abuse by Morgan.

The claims of sexual abuse were not proven to the satisfaction of D. C. Superior Court Judge Herbert Dixon Jr., and in 1987, Dixon ordered Morgan to produce Hilary for unsupervised visits with her father.

Morgan refused and sent her child into hiding. When she refused to reveal Hilary's whereabouts, Dixon sent her to jail. She was released last September only after Congress enacted, and Bush signed, a law designed specifically for her, limiting the time a person can be jailed on civil contempt in child custody cases in the District of Columbia.

Last week, after discovering that Hilary had been living here since July, 1988, with her aging maternal grandparents, Foretich and his lawyers rushed to family court here, seeking to force his U. S. court-granted visitation rights.

But a family court judge denied that request and ordered Foretich not to contact his daughter. The judge then granted Hilary's grandparents, William and Antonia Morgan, temporary custody of Hilary, but took away their passports.

Meanwhile, the prospect of Elizabeth Morgan's arrival in New Zealand to take up her side of the battle clearly disturbs Foretich's U. S. attorneys, who had hoped New Zealand would return the case to the United States.

John C. Lenahan, one of Foretich's lawyers, said, "I feel Dr. Morgan has thumbed her nose at the court and . . . has tried to further defy (the visitation order) by going to New Zealand and seeking to litigate the case there. The parties have no business there. This is not a New Zealand case. They aren't New Zealand citizens. This is an American case involving American parties, and it should be resolved by an American court."

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