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.”
Unlike the Morgan-Foretich case, most children in the underground--and generally they are younger than 6--are in hiding with a parent. A number of the runaway parents are wanted by the FBI as well as state authorities. If they are not the custodial parent, or, as is sometimes the case, if they lose custody to the other parent once they run, they can be arrested on charges of parental kidnaping.
Yager has never been arrested. She has never been directly linked to a particular act of parental kidnaping. FBI spokesman Bill Carter said he would neither confirm nor deny whether she is being investigated.
“In order to (arrest or prosecute) me, they’d have to catch me in the act,” Yager said. “I’m getting away with the same thing these (child abuse) perpetrators are getting away with. I’m protected by the same laws they are.”
Still, hers is now a life spent looking over her shoulder. Phone calls are made from pay phones because she believes her phone is tapped. She takes circuitous routes to see if she is being followed. She has received hate mail and death threats, and has been sued several times, usually by spouses or ex-spouses of those in hiding who believe she has slandered them in publicizing her cause. No suits have come to trial yet.
She is often visited by FBI agents, as are her neighbors. The agents flash pictures of missing children and ask if she has any information on their whereabouts. She refuses to comment.
Her involvement with the sanctuary movement began about a year ago after she read about a custody case in Mississippi in which there was strong medical evidence of child sexual abuse by the father. Yager decided to help the mother with legal fees and detective work, but in the end, the court awarded custody of the two young children to the father.
“The evidence in the case was overwhelming, shocking. After I spent thousands of dollars helping this mother and then saw that (the court) just ignored everything, I decided the next one that called I’d say, ‘Hey, I know somewhere where you can go. Let’s forget about the legal system. It’s not going to work.’ So off we went.”
Word spread fast--and soon everyone from telephone operators to attorneys who believed their clients wouldn’t be given a fair hearing in court were quietly handing out Yager’s phone number. One woman who called said she was given Yager’s phone number by someone in the Department of Justice.
Not everyone is eager to advertise, or applaud, Yager’s efforts.
“It’s a vigilante approach,” says David L. Levy, president of the National Council for Children’s Rights. “We’re against abuse but there have to be better ways to improve the system. Real abuse occurs, but there are also false charges too. Sometimes kids are put on the underground railway by the abuser. There are a lot of gray areas here.”
“We believe people should try to work things out through the system,” says David Lloyd, former general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the agency that Yager considers her No. 1 nemesis, since it attempts to locate some of the children in hiding. “We don’t want kids to be sexually molested. On the other hand, we don’t want bad things to happen to them while they’re missing. We suspect a number of these children are not in school, are not receiving dental or medical care. We have concerns about adequate nutrition and housing. Young people need some sort of permanence.”
Yager concedes that life on the run is painful and difficult--and also that much of her operation is based on faith in the safe house operators and other volunteers since she doesn’t personally keep tabs on all activities. But she does not share her critics’ concerns about the welfare of those seeking sanctuary. The alternative for abused children, she says, is far worse, “a life of nights spent holding back the screams and the tears, days spent daydreaming that they could be anybody but who they are.”
Lloyd says he further questions how underground leaders such as Yager evaluate which cases to take on, since they often don’t have both sides of the story.
Yager says she or one of her volunteers will review court records, and in fact turn down about 30% to 40% of the requests when there is not clear evidence of abuse. But if a call comes to her from a social worker or doctor or other professional referring a case, she doesn’t hesitate. “I’m gonna act on it and I’m gonna act on it real fast.”