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Elizabeth Morgan: Life After Jail

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The euphoria and hoopla have started to ebb. It is Elizabeth Morgan’s fourth week of freedom. After more than two years of confinement, readjustment to life on the outside has begun.

The effects of Morgan’s near-record prison term--759 days for contempt of court for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of her daughter--linger in her responses to small, everyday occurrences.

In the days after her release, for example, she paused at each door, waiting for someone else to open it, unable to let go of the rule that inmates never touch doors. She fumbled clumsily at first with real forks and knives after 25 months of using only prison-issue plastic spoons.

She has had to remind herself to close the door when she uses the bathroom, forgetting that the lack of privacy behind bars is not universal. She finds herself hoarding packets of sugar, bits of plastic and empty jam jars. And the only music she can tolerate now is classical.

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“I overdosed on heavy urban rock,” said Morgan, who hid her daughter, Hilary, after accusing the girl’s father of sexually abusing her. “Something with a heavy beat means jail. And I don’t want to hear it.”

Morgan has not, however, suffered the major traumatic reactions some had predicted.

“People told me that I’d be emotionally distraught, that I wouldn’t be able to function because I’d lost my independence as a human being, and that everything I’d lost over two years would hit me,” she said in an interview. “I was very prepared for an enormous emotional reaction. Maybe that’s why I didn’t have one.”

She is not only free, but she is preparing to begin a new life with her fiance, U.S. Appeals Judge Paul R. Michel, whom she plans to marry in early January. Her clothes, two years in storage, were still in excellent condition when she retrieved them. Her home remains in trust for Hilary.

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But Morgan still faces awesome obstacles.

She is $2 million in debt because of legal fees and other obligations. Her once flourishing practice as a plastic surgeon has been derailed.

Worst of all, she believes she must continue resisting an overwhelming impulse to see Hilary, now 7. Morgan sent her daughter into hiding in 1987 after she became convinced that the child was being sexually molested by Morgan’s ex-husband, oral surgeon Eric Foretich. It is a charge he vehemently denies. And while he agrees that Hilary has been molested, he contends that Morgan did the abusing.

Morgan has not seen her child since 1987, and fears that contact with Hilary now could endanger the carefully guarded secret of her whereabouts.

“It was hard when I first got out, not to have her, not to go and be with her,” Morgan said. “I’m not the sort of person who dissolves into tears at the drop of a hat. But I was crying that first Sunday, when I went to church. Hilary had always gone to church with me. And I was crying because I was missing her.”

But she added: “Although I don’t have the comfort of holding her, I’m doing something much more important. I’m putting my arms around her long distance. She knows she is loved and protected, even if I’m not with her.”

Morgan had refused the order of a Superior Court judge to produce Hilary for unsupervised visits with Foretich, and it was this defiance that sent her to prison. She refused to relent during her incarceration, and her case became the focus of national attention, inspiring an extraordinary alliance of supporters.

Among those who lobbied for her release were feminist groups, millionaire H. Ross Perot and Charles Colson, one-time aide to former President Richard M. Nixon. Colson, who served a prison term as a result of the Watergate scandal, formed Prison Fellowship Ministries when he emerged and became an ardent proponent of Morgan’s cause.

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Foretich has said many times that he believes the powerful interests supporting his ex-wife prevented him from getting a fair hearing in the public arena.

“I have the support of many individual people and various family groups and men’s groups, but I don’t have the kind of lobbying group behind me that would in any way begin to match up to their power and influence,” he said in an interview several months ago. More recently, he did not return repeated phone calls.

The support for Morgan eventually included Congress and President Bush. Morgan was finally freed on Sept. 25 after legislation drafted specifically for her was passed to limit civil contempt jailings in the District of Columbia.

“I think it is very reassuring for (Hilary) to know that I am out,” said Morgan. “And I think the way I was released means a great deal to her--that Congress and the President were willing to listen.”

She has spent much of her time since her release dealing with the media and being feted. Colson gave her a party, as did a group that had formed in her behalf, the Friends of Elizabeth Morgan. A full-color photograph of Morgan, still wearing her prison-issue orange jumpsuit, graced a recent cover of People magazine. She has appeared on numerous television programs, including one uncomfortable appearance on ABC’s Nightline with Foretich. Each was interviewed from a different location.

Critics who have seen these encounters have accused her of being icy, detached and stubborn. In person, although clearly determined, she also seems warm and good-humored--and hopeful that others can benefit from her experience.

“If anything, I hope the country’s awareness of the problem (of child sexual abuse) has increased,” she said. “I think this is something that people can talk about now. More adult survivors are talking about it. . . . I didn’t go into this to become a reformer. I went into this to protect Hilary.”

But she said she recently accepted an invitation to give a talk at a child abuse foundation. “I think I have some things to say that are worth saying,” she said.

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She continues to face several lawsuits brought against her by Foretich, one of them seeking sole custody of Hilary. In return, she is still suing to end his visitation rights.

Foretich has been largely silent during the weeks after his ex-wife’s release. He and his attorney had fought hard to keep Morgan in prison after Bush signed the bill, charging that the law engineered to free her was an unconstitutional infringement on judicial authority. Before Morgan’s release, Foretich said her imprisonment was the only leverage he had left to get Hilary back.

More recently he said he does not want Morgan returned to jail. Instead, he has formed the Help Hilary Home Fund to attempt to raise money to accelerate his search for his daughter.

Morgan says she remains optimistic. “I’d like to think that a year from now this will all be resolved and she will be home,” she said. “But I also know that this may not be resolved until she is in her teens.”

She paused. “My father used to say that if adversity doesn’t destroy you, it will strengthen you,” she said. “And I think I’m much stronger now than I ever was before.”


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