Children of the Underground

Every year, scores of children - petrified and distraught - secretly pack their belongings and leave their homes, schools, friends and extended families to vanish into the underground.

They often make their escape in the dead of night, tightly squeezing the hand of the parent who will disappear with them and head into uncertain lives as fugitives from the law.

Branded as kidnappers by the police, these mothers or fathers see themselves as something very different: protective parents desperate to keep their children from harm.

That harm is sexual abuse. But the abuser is not a stranger, they say - it is the other parent, who has been awarded custody or at least time alone with the child, by a court system without a heart.

With new names, false documents, and the charity of strangers who risk arrest by hiding them in their homes across the country and beyond, these are the children of the underground. And their nomadic and fraudulent existence through the underground's network of "safe houses" is one of America's shameful secrets.

Although the law and the other parent are often just a breath behind them, few of the estimated 200 children currently underground will ever be caught. Some families have eluded local police and the FBI for years. The network of seemingly ordinary citizens that shields them is very smart and very effective.

Several organized undergrounds have emerged in the past decade. Those identified by this newspaper include two in the South, one in the Northeast and one in the West, operating independently of each other, although occasionally they are in contact.

Only one underground leader ever surfaces to talk to the news media. Faye Yager is a doctor's wife who lives in Atlanta, and believes publicity can help her cause and protect her from persecution.

The underground - whether Yager's or others - can have contacts almost anywhere. It can be a grandmother paying for groceries or a motel room, or a sympathetic police chief giving notice before an impending arrest; it can be a church pastor hiding "one of the flock," or a feminist group convinced that the courts are biased against women; it can be a whole organized network of schools, churches, businesses or government agencies that decide to help these parents and children by not asking questions.

Actually, it is all of these.

The fugitives might be in a "safe house" thousands of miles across the ocean, or they might be the single-parent family who moved into your neighborhood, or the child who entered your daughter's class mid-year. Chances are, you'll never know.

Throughout this year, photographer Allan Detrich and I have been given unusual access to the underground. The stories and pictures that will follow over the next five days describe America's latest underground railroad and the children for whom it exists. Amanda on the run

One of those children is Amanda Otter.

Amanda has been underground not once, but twice; she first disappeared 10 years ago, when she was 4 years old, with her mother, who later was caught. Then, a year ago, rather than live in her father's house, Amanda, at age 13, re-entered the underground. This time alone.

After nearly 10 years of running, hiding, being captured, sent to foster care, therapy and numerous courtroom hearings, Amanda Otter had come full circle.

And after all that time, it is still impossible to know whether Amanda was ever sexually abused by her father.

What we do know is that, beginning in 1986, Amanda's mother, April Meyer, believed it, and when she failed to convince authorities, she took her daughter and ran.

Meyer was convinced of the abuse because of her own daughter's disclosures, as well as the repeated redness, rashes and infections in the child's vagina.

Brian Otter adamantly denied abusing his daughter. Amanda's rashes and redness were the result of poor hygiene by Meyer, Otter said in an interview. It was all part of an effort by Meyer, he said, to shut him out of his daughter's life.

And officials in San Bernardino County, California, for the most part, came to believe him and not Meyer.

In the fall of 1987, a court-ordered psychologist concluded that Meyer's claims were not credible. The court had already placed the child in foster care until the abuse allegations were resolved.

Meyer was presented with a choice: either go to a custody trial, or sign a joint-custody agreement with Otter. Her lawyers told her she would probably lose a trial, and Amanda would either remain in foster care or be given to Otter.

Meyer signed the agreement.

But in February 1988, she said, the child returned from a visit with her father with bruises on her genitals and complaining he had "hurt her again." Meyer rushed Amanda to the hospital for an exam.

What she didn't know was that by this time, her case had been "red-flagged" as a custody dispute, with instructions to doctors to call law enforcement officials if Meyer appeared in their emergency rooms.

Almost instantly, sheriffs' deputies arrived at the hospital. They told Meyer that Amanda would be sent that night into foster care. But it was not to be; the county's Child Protective Services "hot line" didn't answer. Neither did several other county agency numbers they dialed.

Reluctantly, the deputies let her go. Come back tomorrow, they told Meyer.

Yeah, right, she thought to herself.

The next day, Meyer was on the road to her parents' home in Eugene, Ore. There, Amanda was seen by a gynecologist who diagnosed the child with genital warts, or condyloma.

Genital warts are usually transmitted through sexual contact, forensic specialists say, and in a 4-year-old girl they are believed to be a strong indicator of abuse.

Otter later tested negative for condyloma, although the test does not rule out the presence of the virus. He contended that "either the report is bogus . . . or she got the warts when she was with April."

Armed with the condyloma diagnosis, Meyer contacted the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office.

The district attorney responded with a warrant for her arrest.

That's when Meyer decided to go underground. Disappearing on TV

In those days, the underground wasn't really much of one at all. Faye Yager's name had only just begun circulating - among feminist groups, domestic violence shelters and child protective service agencies. She was someone who might help parents and children on the run. But in the West, her contacts were few.

One of them was in a women's shelter near Eugene, Ore. Meyer had fled to a shelter after hearing that detectives had visited her aunt's home in Oregon.

And that's where she got Faye Yager's telephone number.

Meyer was only Faye Yager's second case, the second mother to "officially" enter her underground in 1988. The year before, Yager had been busy building contacts, but when Meyer called her, this fledgling network was still under construction. She had no "safe houses" at all in the West or Midwest.

"She basically said to me, `if you can make it East, I can help you,' " Meyer said.

And she told Meyer to talk to the media.

In those days, it was still not clear how far a mother could run with her child and not be caught. Convinced from the beginning that her arrest was imminent, Meyer agreed to go on television. She appeared on "Sally Jesse Raphael" and "Geraldo." Amanda's haunted eyes and childish pout were featured on the cover of U.S. News & World Report.

"I figured that U.S. News story would be a wake-up call about these kinds of cases," Meyer said.

It wasn't. If anything, Meyer now believes, it just hardened the resolve of San Bernardino County officials and her ex-husband to track them down. After Meyer's appearance on "Geraldo," a dismayed Otter filed a $65 million suit against the television program, claiming that Rivera's staffers were aiding and abetting a fugitive. The suit was later dismissed.

Meyer kept on running, and it wouldn't be until four years later that she and Amanda would be caught, living in New York state.

Once Meyer and Amanda were separately returned to California, the tug of war over Amanda, then 8, intensified. Meyer faced two trials, and two judges: one for custody, one to face criminal charges.

And in both, she won.

First, a San Bernardino County judge gave custody of Amanda to Meyer. The bond between them was so strong it would traumatize the child if she were sent to live with her father, Judge Michael Smith said. But his ruling was also quite critical of Meyer, and he stated that, based on his review of medical records and witness testimony, Otter hadn't abused Amanda.

A second judge and jury, though, had a very different take on Meyer's conduct.

In that second courtroom, she was acquitted on criminal charges of felony child stealing. The judge later told reporters that the legal system had failed Meyer; that had it been him, he "would have run sooner." Several jury members also said that there was "overwhelming" evidence Amanda had been molested.

Otter told reporters, however, that the jury had received a one-sided picture. He wasn't on trial; his ex-wife was. And because of that, he had no opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses. Snatched from school

During the criminal trial, Amanda had been returned to her mother. They settled into a new life in Highland, a small town on the edge of the California desert. She was a straight A-student, and at Thompson Elementary, she won first prize in the school's science fair.

And every other weekend, Amanda went to spend court-ordered visits with her father.

It was a difficult time. Otter was angry that she had testified against him in her mother's criminal trial. Relations between the two became increasingly strained.

After almost a year, Otter wrote a letter to the court saying he wanted to stop the visits. He loved his daughter, he said, but his former wife had successfully turned Amanda against him, and he hoped that by giving his daughter some space they could rebuild their relationship.

Otter did not visit Amanda for almost a year.

But in August 1995, Meyer decided she wanted to move to Eugene, Ore., to be closer to her family. That led Otter to reassert his visitation rights and triggered a new court review of the custody order.

This time, another judge took the case.

On March 21, 1996, Amanda left her mother's house for school, waving goodbye to her three younger siblings and saying she would see them that evening, as usual.

But she did not come home that night.

That day, Judge Joseph Johnston, in a surprise ruling, awarded custody to Otter. He said Meyer had not done enough to foster a relationship between Amanda and Otter, and for that reason, it was time to take drastic action.

He forbade any contact between Meyer and Amanda for three months, and after that point, visits could occur every other weekend.

Meyer's attitude toward Amanda's relationship with her father, the judge said, was galling.

"I think it was demonstrated to the court that your attitude is if this child wants to see her father, that's OK; but if she doesn't, that's OK too. And in that kind of an environment, he doesn't even have a fighting chance because the child's not going to respect her father. And if the child doesn't respect her father, there's no way in God's earth she would want to go visit her father.

"At least I'm going to try to give (Otter) an opportunity to have some relationship. Twenty years from now, perhaps the little girl will look back as an adult woman and . . . at least have a better feeling about herself and her relationship with her father."

Otter and police arrived at Thompson Elementary School to remove her. Meyer had arrived separately to tell her daughter the news. Otter accused Meyer of trying to take Amanda, and she was prohibited from seeing the girl.

Amanda was escorted into a waiting car, in tears. Fleeing alone

What happened after that, like everything else in this case, is in dispute.

From Otter's perspective, the three months that Amanda lived with him without visits from her mother went very well. She seemed happy to be there, and did well in her new school - a top student, as she had always been.

From Meyer's perspective, the judge's decision was devastating. Not only for her, but for Robyn Jo and Molly, Amanda's half-sisters, and Matthew, her younger half-brother. Otter's immediate removal of Amanda from Thompson Elementary three months before the end of the school year was cruel and disruptive, she added.

Whatever the case, when visits to Meyer resumed, Otter's relationship with his daughter "disintegrated," he would later tell the court.

This was, he said, because of Meyer's continuing efforts, during weekend visits, "to convince Amanda she was abused and molested as a child" and to regain custody.

Amanda described those months in her father's house as "scary." She says that her father criticized her mother incessantly and searched Amanda's belongings after visits with her mother. He threatened her with punishment if she complained about him to her friends.

Otter denied all of those allegations, and told the court that "my only discussions with Amanda on this issue have been to inform her that she has issues of false beliefs of abuse that she needs to deal with in therapy.'

In October 1996, Amanda poured out her feelings in an essay for her English teacher.

"I've lost something that most people never lose. Those are the lucky people. I've lost my family," she wrote.

"I have always lived with my mom. She has supported me in everything. I love her and my siblings more than you can imagine."

Amanda wrote that she had thought of suicide "but I talked myself out of that."

At the end, she wrote the teacher, "This is a true story. I'm a good acter (sic). You probably think I'm a happy person. Only at school. Don't tell anyone."

At the bottom of the essay, the teacher wrote: "Hopefully this experience will make you stronger. Thanks for sharing."

That essay was presented as "Exhibit A" by Meyer in December, when she petitioned the court to regain custody of her daughter. Meyer complained that her ex-husband's behavior had been "detrimental" to Amanda and he was threatening to cut off all contact between them.

Otter denied Meyer's allegations in a court petition.

Then he asked the court to further restrict or supervise contact between Meyer and Amanda, because of Meyer's continuing efforts to alienate the girl from him.

Fearful that her father would succeed in cutting off all contact with her mother, Amanda telephoned Faye Yager. She says she made the call during a visit with her mother, but says her mother didn't know about it.

Yager says she did not advise the girl to run away. Instead, she suggested that Amanda first seek out a counselor at her new school and talk about her problems.

So when she told the counselor about her feelings of anger towards her father and how much she missed her mother, the counselor picked up the telephone, called Otter, and told him what Amanda had said, as she was sitting there.

Her father, furious, "told me they would put me in a mental hospital if I didn't behave," Amanda says.

It may not have been an idle threat.

Amanda had been seeing a court-appointed psychiatrist, Lorna Forbes, who told her that her mother had brainwashed her; that she had never been abused; and that she suffered from a separation disorder resulting from her years underground.

Forbes also spoke favorably about hospitalization to treat the disorder.

On Amanda's next visit with her mother, she slipped away to a pay phone and called Yager again.

This time, Yager agreed to help.

"You don't put a straight-A student in a mental hospital because she doesn't want to live with her father," Yager says.

On Jan. 28, 1997, Amanda left a school bus stop and climbed into a waiting car with a red ribbon tied around the antenna, vanishing once more into the underground. How the father feels

Brian Otter lives in a cheerful one-story house in Yucaipa, a pretty town in the San Bernardino mountains on the edge of the California desert.

A "WELCOME" flag hangs over the front door. In the living room, a book is half open on a chair: "Chicken Soup for the Soul," a best-selling book of inspirational stories for women. It belongs to Otter's wife, who is at work. One of her teen-age sons works quietly in the next room on his computer.

Otter, a short, stocky man with sandy blond hair and a handlebar mustache, works for San Bernardino County's Hazardous Materials unit. He is friendly, almost laid back - quick to suggest a good restaurant for an out-of-towner, or the fastest route to his ex-wife's house.

On more sensitive matters - such as his daughter's latest disappearance and the bitter feud between him and Meyer - he appears equally unflappable, even in the face of the most personal questions.

It's a much different attitude than the first time Amanda left, in 1988.

Then, he said, "I would drive up to my job in Victorville, some 45 minutes away, and just cry my eyes out. I would just cry and get it out of my system, and then I could get on with the rest of the workday."

Now, he says, he's just numb. He suspects that his ex-wife encouraged Amanda to flee into the underground, and detectives, he says, are actively trying to map a connection. But because Amanda left a note saying she was running away, law enforcement authorities can only treat it as a runaway case.

"I'm not really sure what the FBI is doing" in trying to track her down, he says. In addition, Amanda is very near the age of consent - age 14 - which may make it possible, if she is ever found, for her to make the choice of whether she wants to have a relationship with her father.

"In some ways, her absence has eased the pressure," Otter says. At least now, he says, the constant tension with Meyer, brought on by the fight for custody of Amanda, has ceased. How the mother feels

A dozen miles away in the small desert valley town of Beaumont, Meyer sits in her living room while two of her children frolic on the carpeted floor.

She is fit and youthful at 36, but there are dark circles under her eyes, and her laugh can turn on a dime into tears, when the talk shifts to her daughter's disappearance and how much she misses her.

She says she knew nothing about Amanda's choice to go underground. Her final visit was just like any other since Amanda was ordered to live with her father: full of hugs and tears, and holding hands in the car.

And just like any other visit, Meyer wept after dropping Amanda off at her father's home.

In Meyer's living room, there is a brass picture frame on a table. It contains a photograph of her with Chris Meyer, her second husband, on their wedding day, Sept. 24, 1991. Except that the frame is engraved "Chris and Karen Ann."

Karen Ann DeRosa was Meyer's false identity in her other life, during her four years in the underground with Amanda.

Almost everyone in Watkins Glen, N.Y., the town where she first settled, knew she was a fugitive.

Meyer had told only a few people, in moments of weakness, she says. But word travels fast, and after she was caught, she learned that her fugitive status had been widely known.

If the FBI wanted to punish anyone for helping her,"they would have had to arrest the whole town," she laughs, her eyes glistening with angry tears.

"We have kids, and we think we can protect them," she says. "And when your daughter is 2 or 3 years old, she'll believe you. But when Mandy was 12, I couldn't tell her that anymore." How the daughter feels

On the telephone, Amanda sounds just like any 13-year-old. She writes poetry. She frets about her hair. She likes those little earring stores at the shopping malls, "any store with trinkets."

Except, she said during a conversation last summer, she wasn't getting out to shopping malls very much.

And these days, her name is "Beth," not Amanda, a name she was given while staying at an undisclosed location - before taking off again to another undisclosed location.

Today, Beth/Amanda is underground. Way underground, Faye Yager says, and there she will stay until she attains legal adulthood at age 18 or the courts change their rulings.

After Amanda climbed into the car with the red ribbon, she was taken to one of Yager's "safe houses." The owner of the home said in a telephone interview that it is "a normal house in a suburban neighborhood somewhere in this country.

"We know it's a risk. We could be sued, lose our home, if it was ever discovered we had helped her. But we knew the Lord would want us to help, if it's a matter of a child in danger."

During Amanda's stay there, she got her hair cut and colored, and was enrolled in a private Christian school under her fictitious name until plans could be made to move her again. The school's principal knew her story, and agreed to hide her.

Amanda talked cheerfully about her new life.

She had her own room, and attended church, and went out for walks - but not in any place too public.

"I'm feeling fine," she said. "I'm trying not to think about the bad stuff."

For someone in hiding, her voice on the telephone sounded matter-of-fact, as if someone had taken an iron and pressed out all the emotion. Perhaps it's because she's recited her life story so many times before so many strangers - judges, psychiatrists, reporters.

When she talked about the "bad stuff," she wasn't referring to the child sexual abuse allegations - but her grief at being separated from the person she loved most in the world.

"I don't really remember that much about what happened to me" as a child, she said. "My mom says it's probably because I put most of it out of my mind."

But, she wrote in a letter to Judge Johnston after she had disappeared, "I am not coming back until full custody is given to my mom.

"The longer you wait to give full custody to my mom, the more reason I will have to sue San Bernardino County when I am older."

Until that day comes, she will remain a child of the underground. * * * * *

Mackenzie Carpenter, 43, is a projects writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Born in New York City and raised in Princeton, N.J., and Tokyo, Japan, she covered politics for United Press International's Harrisburg bureau and as a producer/reporter for public television stations in Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. She received a bachelor's degree from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and a master's degree in studies of law from Yale Law School. She has won awards for a 1994 series on liver transplantation and a 1996 series on the quality of day care. Her most recent project examined the Pittsburgh schools' search for a new superintendent.