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When Families Join the ‘Underground’ : Constant Change Becomes a Habit as Parents, Children Lose Identities

The Baltimore Sun

The decision to run away, to take a ride on the “underground railroad,” is not an easy one. Here are two stories of parents who chose to flee with their children:

Bethany tries on new names like other 5-year-olds try on their mother’s high heels.

Annie, she likes. Maybe Annie Rose. She says she needs a new name “so my daddy won’t know it’s me.”

She has sad eyes, a plump shape and even plumper, grander dreams of diamond crowns and “poofy” gowns. Soon her short, straight hair will be permed and colored--again so her father won’t know her.

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She is staying at a safe house, a four-bedroom private residence, with four other children, one of them her younger brother, all of them in hiding and on the run with their mothers.

If she is scared, if she misses her best friend, if she worries about there not being enough food, or about where she will sleep tomorrow, so does her mother, Jesse Murabito. But Murabito believes she had no other choice.

A New Hampshire real estate agent, Murabito, now 40, charged in court that her husband, Mark, from whom she is now divorced, had sexually abused their two children. Two years ago, she went to jail and hid her children rather than turn them over to her husband for an unsupervised visit. After a week in solitary confinement, she relented and produced the children.

Last year, after a grand jury had indicted Mark Murabito on charges of sexually molesting Bethany--and visitation stopped--Jesse Murabito believed she was getting somewhere with the judicial system. But after a trial in November in Exeter, N.H., a jury acquitted her ex-husband and weekend visits were ordered to resume.

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A Quick Decision

From the courtroom, Jesse Murabito made a phone call and a quick decision. With her children in tow, she decided to flee.

She called a hot-line number for the underground railroad and was told to drive two states over and then take a bus to Atlanta. At the bus station she would be met by someone who would furnish the mother and children with disguises and further instructions.

Once in Atlanta, the three shaken runaways were given shelter while the network busily arranged a more permanent situation for them--new IDs, a new Social Security number, a resume and job for Murabito, and a home of their own.

Murabito has not adapted easily to life on the run: “I don’t go through a day without the pain of missing home, missing my family. I don’t have a job, I don’t even have a history. I’m nobody right now.

“But here we’re safe. I know what I did was the right thing.”

Temporary Haven

Twice a month, a church volunteer makes a delivery of food and toiletries to this temporary stopover, a private residence owned by a mother and her teen-age daughter in a suburban neighborhood.

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A visitor from the underground paid a visit to the home, bringing the children gifts that had been donated by local merchants and taking them out for ice cream.

“Have your bags packed,” she told Murabito as she dropped them off at the safe house. “Someone will be here for you in four days.”

And they were.

Bags packed, new names on the tags, mother and daughter and son were off to the next destination unknown.

Michael Meriwether was a professor of computer science at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, known to be a kind, educated, responsible, confident and soft-spoken man.

But 15 months ago, he did something very uncharacteristic. He tossed aside his career, said good-by to his family and took off for parts unknown with his 3-year-old son. In hiding ever since, he has been charged with child abduction by a court in Maryland, where his ex-wife resides.

Meriwether, who believes his former wife, Terry Treadway, was neglecting their child, is among the growing number of parents accused of kidnaping. The underground railroad, which had not yet organized when Meriwether fled, represents only a tiny portion of the cases of parents on the run.

Meriwether and his wife, Terry, divorced in 1985 after a three-year marriage and the birth of their son, Travis, in October, 1984.

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When the mother moved to Lexington Park, Md., and remarried in the summer of 1986, she retained custody of the child. Meriwether was awarded visitation for one week every month.

During one of these visits in Oklahoma, Meriwether became concerned with Travis’ slight weight and lack of social skills and took the child to Oklahoma Children’s Memorial Hospital. The hospital reported that the young boy was developmentally delayed and was underweight for his age.

Continued Monitoring

On subsequent visits, Travis was examined and monitored. In July, 1987, the Department of Human Services filed in Oklahoma County Juvenile Court a complaint of neglect against the mother, Terry Treadway, based on the hospital’s findings. Doctors testified that the child lost weight when in the care of the mother and gained weight when with the father.

Treadway attributed the child’s weight loss to the psychological trauma of his visits to Oklahoma, visits he didn’t want to make, she said. Still, the juvenile court judge awarded temporary custody to Meriwether and ordered a trial to investigate the neglect charges.

After several delays, a jury trial was scheduled in Oklahoma for Nov. 4, 1987. But two days before the trial was scheduled to begin, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ordered the case dismissed, citing a violation of a state rule that a child cannot be held in detention for more than 90 days before a trial.

The presiding juvenile court judge, Sidney Brown, said at the time that it had been customary in Oklahoma County to waive the 90-day rule when a child was in the custody of a parent rather than foster care and said he was surprised at the order not to proceed with the trial and instead return the child to the mother.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling, which left the state powerless to try the case, Michael Meriwether fled with his son.


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