Custody Battle Spans Nine Years, An Ocean, Most Of Girl's Lifetime

FIVE YEARS AGO, Dr. Elizabeth Morgan's home was a D.C. jail, where she sat defying a judge and her former husband. Now she lives in New Zealand with the daughter she hid, rebuilding her life while longing for a life back home. -----------------------------------------------------------------

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand - It has been five years since a tense, gaunt Dr. Elizabeth Morgan emerged from the District of Columbia jail where she had spent 25 months for refusing to disclose her daughter's whereabouts.

The plastic surgeon from suburban Virginia had waged Washington, D.C.'s most costly, nasty custody battle, alleging that her doctor-husband, Eric Foretich, had sexually abused their baby daughter, Hilary. When a court ordered unsupervised visitation for the father, Morgan instead sent Hilary, 5, into hiding.

Hilary was in New Zealand, living in a motel with her grandparents. She had a new name - Ellen - and a new life in the flat, green calm of Christchurch. Eventually her father tracked her down, but he could not bring her back. By then Elizabeth Morgan was out of jail, and a New Zealand court awarded her custody.

Today, at first glance, Morgan seems happy. Hilary/Ellen, now 12, seems happy, too. They are living in a place of tearooms and garden cottages, surrounded by deer farms and apricot orchards. Local folks know the story of the American runaways, but few bring it up; Christchurchers do not pry.

It is a strange life. Morgan is a doctor who cannot practice medicine. She has drained her mother's savings account and has broken into her own retirement fund. They cannot leave the country without permission; their passports are under lock and key at the New Zealand family court. If Morgan returns to the United States, she could face the same contempt-of-court charges that put her in jail. Until 2000, when Ellen turns 18 and the custody case becomes moot, they are stuck here.

To Elizabeth Morgan, home is as concrete as Washington, D.C. To Ellen, home is less a city than a feeling, an untroubled state of mind she would like to know. For now, though, mother and daughter remain in their respective exiles. And beneath the tranquility of their days is something forbidding.

Truth proves elusive

The truth of what happened nine years ago may never be known. Medical testimony was inconclusive. Doctors found physical trauma that was consistent with abuse, but if the girl was abused no one could say by whom. Ellen names her father, with an unshakable conviction. The father denies it. Can a child be brainwashed into believing a lie? Can two children be brainwashed? In a separate custody battle, Ellen's older half-sister also reported that her father sexually abused her. Later she recanted. Later still she accused him again. In that case Eric Foretich was denied visitation because the visits upset the girl. He was never charged with a crime, nor was there ever a ruling he had abused a child.

The truth may no longer even exist, reality having long ago been overtaken by perceptions.

To many, Morgan came across as an unpleasant woman: vindictive, manipulative, messianic. But wouldn't any mother - convinced that such an unspeakable betrayal had taken place - behave just like that?

The father seemed evasive, creepy, cold, filled with aggressive fury. But wouldn't any father - wrongly accused of raping a child - behave just like that?

The only accessible truth is what we see in Christchurch. Morgan has agreed to talk to a reporter at some personal risk. The local court has warned her not to speak to the press about Ellen. But once, public support helped free Morgan from jail. Maybe it could work for her again - she wants out.

Morgan is 47, her black hair now softened with gray. She is likably unconventional, patient with her daughter, quick to admit to and sometimes laugh at the tumult that is her life. Ellen is a spirited child. She has grown nine inches in the past year and a half and is filled with adolescent fizz. She cuddles stray cats, goofs around with her girlfriends at the ice rink and perks up at television kissing scenes.

There is a third Morgan living here: Elizabeth Morgan's mother, Antonia, 80. She wears good wool cardigans and carries floral handkerchiefs, looks frail but can still hop a fence. It was Antonia who helped spirit Ellen away.

Twice a year, Morgan's new husband visits. He is a federal judge who lives in Washington, D.C., a white-haired, black-jeaned gentle man named Paul Michel. Distance tests their marriage: His month-long visits jangle with urgency. He could never live here, he says. "It's like living on Mars."

In many ways, Ellen is a typical Kiwi girl-athletic, uncomplicated. Unlike Morgan, a bookworm who by the age of 12 had skipped two grades, Ellen thrives on a new-found passion, ice skating. Her mother and grandmother's intellectual musings exasperate her. ("There's no need to philosophize about candy - just eat it!" she teases.) Ellen's main goal is to skate in the Olympics, representing New Zealand.

"I'll go to college in Sweden," Ellen says.

"I'm not raising you in Sweden. I'm not learning Swedish."

"Start learning."

"I'm glad you've settled our life, `Ellen.' "

"OK, Switzerland. We'll train for the Olympics there."

"No, no! I want to go back to America."

But what of America does Ellen remember? Trick-or-treating once in a Care Bear costume, living near the White House, taking a nap one time in kindergarten - that's it, Ellen says, her hands in fists. Fiercer impressions, the ones she has shared with her mother and Antonia, she does not volunteer. Life on the run

For more than two years, Ellen's only stable landmark was McDonald's. She wandered the world with her grandparents - Nassau, Toronto, Vancouver, Glasgow, England, Singapore, Auckland, Christchurch. Kids in the Bahamas called her "little white girl," kids in New Zealand called her "little English girl"; all the while her grandparents reminded her she was a little American girl, on the run from her daddy.

Bill and Antonia Morgan seemed perfect for the journey. Both are psychologists. He is a former spy for the Office of Strategic Services. They posed as a retired couple taking their granddaughter on a pleasure trip. In fact, they were a bleak threesome: a rheumatic British woman, a blustering American man and a 5-year-old clutching her pink blanket, "Quilty."

Ellen refused to have her hair cut - she was afraid her mother wouldn't recognize her. She had to write Morgan a letter for an assignment at school in England. Ellen asked the teacher: "How do you spell `jail' ?"

They had a pay phone installed in their apartment in Plymouth, England, so that overseas calls couldn't be traced. They saw an ad in the British press offering $50,000 for Ellen's return. "How much?" she asked, amazed. "For a girl like me?"

It was time to move on - to a country that hadn't signed the Hague Convention, where there was no fear of deportation - New Zealand.

And then in February 1990, after all their precautions, the police rapped on the door of the Morgans' room at the Diplomat Motel. Eric Foretich had found them. The police were followed almost immediately by news photographers, who swarmed outside their suite. "Most people assumed I was insane"

Arms linked, backs bent, mother and daughter are quacking around the patio. "We're having a duck conversation," Morgan says to Michel. She and Ellen are feeding lettuce leaves to wild ducks.

"She's playful, not afraid to do things," Michel says warmly, looking up from a legal brief. "Other people would think she's bonkers."

Other people already do. As Morgan puts it: "I have had to deal with the fact that most people assumed I was insane."

For 25 months she lived in a 6-by-11-foot cell, slept four hours a night, had to use a toilet in front of guards of both sexes. She sobbed into her blanket and cursed out loud the judge who put her there. She studied ballet from a textbook, gripping her bunk as a barre. She interviewed inmates about their childhood abuse, material she is now using for a doctoral dissertation in psychology. She scrawled in crayon on the dirty cinder-block wall, "Was mich nicht zugrunde richtet, macht mich starker."

What doesn't kill me outright makes me stronger.

But Morgan was frailer than ever when special congressional action released her in September 1989. During her early days in Christchurch, she snapped easily, talked constantly, subsisted on chocolate and 13 cups of coffee a day.

Then, in spring 1991, there came a turning point. Morgan was weeping, sitting on a log by a magnolia tree. "This is what you have," she said. "The tree is beautiful, and your child is safe, and what you do with the rest is up to you." If she didn't recover, she reasoned, neither would Ellen.

Two years ago, Michel arrived for a visit and saw a dark-haired woman at the airport, waving and laughing. "Attractive woman," he thought, and then he was stunned. It was his wife. He didn't recognize her - she was smiling.

Morgan smiles a lot now - a smart, intense, grand-lipped smile. But melancholy is close to the surface. Walking through town one afternoon, she passes an ambulance: "I miss medicine. There was a time people had a problem and I could fix it."

"Case comes down to Ellen"

Spring break is over, back to school.

Ellen, in a kilt and blazer, runs down the schoolyard path, joining a group of classmates in straw derbies. They are nice to Ellen, but there's the sense that she isn't one of them. Her mother doesn't bake bread like the other mums. Her mother taught her to omit male references to God during prayers. Ellen's two best friends at school are outsiders too, one Chinese, one Hawaiian.

Most days, while Ellen is at school, Morgan works on her dissertation on childhood trauma. She talks about her own daughter: "This case comes down to Ellen, whether she's a crazy, brainwashed robot and lied."

So this afternoon, Morgan agrees to try something new, to let Ellen speak for herself: "Now that Ellen is healed, it's a matter of her reputation." Morgan picks her up from school and they drive to Ellen's favorite - McDonald's, where a kiwi bird perches on golden arches.

Ellen dissects a cheeseburger and chats happily about school. The best part of her day: The French teacher was absent. Then Morgan stammers, "Ellen, darling - " And something in her voice warns Ellen. "Yes," the girl says, in the haughty tone she adopts when she feels threatened.

"One reason the reporter is here is to let you speak for yourself. You can be mad at me if you want. . . ."

Ellen looks more scared than angry. Finally, she speaks: "I would like to go back to America."

"Are there people in America you don't want to see? It could be me too." Now it's Morgan who looks frightened.

"Why wouldn't I want to see you?" Ellen says. Her cheeks redden and then: "There are lots of people I'd like to do some really inhumane things to."

"Well, sweetheart, so you don't feel pressed, I'm going to go get some more hot chocolate."

Morgan walks away. Ellen looks as if something inside is breaking. She jumps up and follows her mother. A few minutes later, she returns on Morgan's arm.

"As I was saying," Ellen says, sitting very straight, "I'd like to go home and see my cousins. But I wouldn't like to see Judge Dixon, or the Foretiches."

She decapitates a French fry on "Foretiches."

"I want to see cherry blossoms"

How can this story end happily?

"You mean if I could wave a magic wand?" says Morgan, her face brightening.

"We would live in Maryland, Chevy Chase. We would live with Paul. Ellen would go to high school at Holton-Arms with her cousin. I would set up a clinic at the D.C. jail for the abused children of criminals. I would teach surgeons about psychological recovery from trauma. I would earn money and support us for a change. . . ."

"My most important wish is just to walk around the Tidal Basin with Ellen and Paul. I want to see the cherry blossoms again."

Later, Ellen is asked the same question, for her version of a hocus-pocus happy ending.

"That's a silly question," she says, taken aback. "I don't have a magic wand."