Children of the Underground

In some ways, life for Ashley and Sarah Mazzie was very normal for two lively little girls.

They squabbled over who got to sit next to mom in the car. They loved "Rugrats" and crayons, ice cream and trips to Chuck E. Cheez.

But in other ways, life was painfully different. Their hair had dark roots from the hair dye they'd used to disguise themselves. For several weeks, they lived out of suitcases and wore borrowed clothing.

And just as they took on different names to hide their identities, so did Ashley's doll.

"Her name is MaSasha. It used to be Cinderella, but she changed it, just like me," Ashley said.

The girls didn't have many toys, but it didn't matter. They could play "school" for hours with just a few boxes, spinning out imaginary worlds far from the stuffy garage apartment in Huntsville, Ala., that was their home until recently.

Their mother, Rita Mazzie, took them into hiding two years ago. When she asked them last summer what they wanted to do, they said they wanted to keep running.

"What about school?" she asked.

"So?" The girls answered in unison.

"What about your friends?"

"So?" They answered again.

They sounded very sure of themselves. But experts caution that life on the run is confusing and traumatic for children, who are forced to leave friends and familiar places behind and take on new identities at a time when their own self-knowledge is far from complete.

Even if the flight is to escape abuse, even if they are more bonded to their abducting parent than to the parent they are fleeing, there are pitfalls, especially if the child is not told what is happening until the last minute.

"Every parental abduction is different," says Chris Hatcher, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Franciso and author of a number of federally funded studies of the impact of abductions on children.

What the child is told at first is very important, Hatcher says. "Many children aren't even told they're being abducted. Their parents say, `We're going on a mystery tour, we're going on vacation.' " That kind of deception hurts.

Even when the child is told the truth, how they are told is important. If the child realizes that the parent is fleeing to protect him, the impact may not be as damaging.

"If the parent says, `I'm doing this to save you, versus I'm doing this because this is a belief I have as a parent,' that can make a big difference," says Hatcher.

While studies generally say that most abductions are damaging to children, Hatcher concedes that in a very few cases, they may be the only alternative.

That's what Faye Yager and other underground organizers say to justify their actions. They say life as a fugitive is not the best choice, but it may be the only choice if the alternative is sexual abuse.

"I can tell you that some of these kids, when they're recovered from the underground, may be more traumatized about the prospect of returning to a parent who abused them than by living under assumed names and safe from the abuse," says Alan Rosenfeld, a lawyer who has defended women who take their children into hiding.

It's hard to say whether running has been a damaging experience for Ashley and Sarah Mazzie, who returned to Pittsburgh in August, when their mother decided to turn herself in to authorities. Rita Mazzie said before she returned that the girls were in better psychological shape then than they had been two years ago, thanks to extensive therapy received while in women's shelters and from a non-profit foundation in Florida.

But Mazzie also said then that she knew it was no life for a child.

"These children can't take this much longer. I can't take it much longer. They keep asking if I'm OK," Mazzie said. "Did they find us?' "

While Mazzie talked, Ashley leaned out the car window. Her soft hazel eyes grew wide.

"Oooh," she said in her breathy voice. "Look, there's that miniature golf place. We didn't get to go there."

Why not? she was asked.

She looked up, then hesitated. " `cause it's too public. My mom says we can't go out in public. The FBI might find us."