Children of the Underground

Rita Mazzie entered the underground through the doors of a women's shelter.

But does that mean America's growing network of domestic violence shelters has become an arm of the underground?

"Actually, yes," says one lawyer who has extensive underground contacts and asked not to be identified. "There is a federally funded underground in this country - women's shelters. A woman and children will go in, she'll say she's been abused, and if they think she's being stalked, they'll call up another shelter and send her there. And that's often the start of a life on the run."

Sometimes, shelter officials go a step further, hooking women up with networks that have "safe houses" and can provide false identity papers, like the one run by Atlanta's Faye Yager, who acknowledges she gets many of her referrals from shelters.

Marty Friday, director of the Pittsburgh Women's Center and Shelter, says she's heard of Faye Yager - but doesn't refer women to her.

"This might be splitting hairs, but for the most part shelters will tell people what their options are, and let people choose for themselves," Friday says.

"When someone is truly fleeing for her life, or for her children, the moral issues get very complicated," says Friday.

Some shelters have been the target of lawsuits by fathers, and some shelter employees have been charged in abduction cases with obstruction of justice.

Most women's shelters work closely with police, but when they get involved in helping a mother flee, it can put a strain on their relationships with law enforcement officials.

A San Francisco shelter was raided several years ago by police, who charged that the shelter's director was harboring fugitives at the request of organized underground leaders. The entire shelter's staff was replaced with new employees - strict instructions to check custody orders carefully.

Domestic violence organizations counter by saying that ineffective law enforcement - and judges who don't believe claims of abuse - are driving women underground.

"Until the courts start to look at the evidence that is presented about the safety of children, mothers are going to be forced to take actions that are not legal," says Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

And many shelters, concerned primarily with protecting a woman and her children, will continue to look the other way when it comes to issues of custody.

"The less we know, the more we can protect ourselves," says one shelter official who asked not to be identified. "Our job is, first and foremost, to protect our clients from harm. And to do that, we also need to protect ourselves from liability."