Children of the Underground

Faye Yager's underground sprawls across international borders, but its central headquarters is in her Atlanta kitchen, and it is powered by her telephone.

Going underground takes some planning in today's America, where missing kids' photos are displayed in Wal-Mart, Pizza Hut and on America Online, and where many public schools require single parents to provide custody papers proving they have legal guardianship of a child within 30 days of enrollment.

But 10 years into it, Yager has the routine down cold.

The underground starts with a phone call - from a parent, or, sometimes, an intermediary: a social service agency, a church, or even a law enforcement official.

Once contact is established, and the caller appears to be legitimate, Yager asks for documents, preferably mailed in advance of a face-to-face meeting with her in Atlanta. And also, bring the children, she says, so she can interview them on videotape.

If Yager decides to help, the mother and children are sent to a "safe house" until plans are finalized to settle them in a place where the parent can obtain a job.

Of course, all of this presupposes that the parent is, in Yager's words, "runnin' material."

That usually means someone who is strong-willed and resilient, and with financial resources. Yager often has been accused of helping only rich people, but primarily, she says, she helps people who can help themselves.

She requires that her families liquidate their assets, which they will use to live on underground. Sometimes those without sufficient funds are told to wait, and save their money, before she will help them.

Over the years, Yager's contacts in the underground have provided her families with aliases, disguises, fake passports and falsely registered vehicles.

Before going underground, she tells her families to leave a trail of confusing "clues," such as random phone calls all over the country, since investigators will surely pore over telephone records. She asks for credit cards so her contacts can make small charges on them - again in stores in different states, to confuse police.

Some of those who have entered Yager's underground say they have been asked to leave their cars at specified places. She will then have her contacts drive the vehicles all over the country, so that police spend their time tracking the license plate - even though the owner is long gone.

She will often, during telephone conversations, refer to her mothers as "Sally."

She keeps track of her Sallys by area code and number of children, Sally-609-2 or Sally-201-3, until the actual vanishing act occurs. By that time, her contacts will have prepared the fake papers, the new names, the new resumes.

Many of the people who have entered her underground take the names of people who have died.

People who were born in one state and died in another are frequently used. Since states often don't cross-reference that information, a fleeing mother or father can send away for a copy of a birth certificate - saying they need it, for example, to register for college courses - and then use it to get a passport, bank account or credit cards.

And then there are the white notebooks - Yager's calling card. Each mother or father must provide copies of key documents - medical records, police reports, custody orders - plus a written summary of the events leading to her or his decision to go underground.

The material is placed in a three-ringed notebook covered with white plastic, with a photograph of the fleeing parent and children attached to the cover. Yager mails them to missing children's organizations and federal and local law enforcement agencies around the country, as a way of letting them know that this is one of her cases.

While she's not sure if the notebooks serve as a deterrent, it's a good idea to have relevant documents all in one place, in case the parent is caught.

She also supplements those notebooks with flyers describing the alleged molester's activities, which are distributed in the community where he lives.

And then, of course, there's the famous Yager "shock treatment." She'll telephone judges and the prosecutors at home or confront them in restaurants, picket their courthouses, deluge their fax machines - all in an effort to go on the offensive against an alleged molester.

At the same time, her families are constantly navigating through her network, until they reach their final destination - often beyond U.S. borders.

"I can't hide people in this country anymore," Yager says flatly. She may not be telling the whole truth, but certainly, her organization - once a necklace of farms, motels and churches strung across the country - has expanded abroad.

The most recent evidence of that was when Barbara Morton, who went underground with her son Brock in a highly publicized case, turned the boy over to authorities in Albania, 18 months after Yager arranged her flight - "although I certainly didn't send her to Albania," Yager says indignantly.

Even countries that have signed the Hague Treaty agreeing to honor custody orders are reluctant to devote their resources toward tracking parental abductors. Some are more reluctant than others: France, Ireland, New Zealand and the Eastern Bloc countries are the least interested in pursuing such cases, underground organizers claim.

Once her families are settled underground, Yager says she doesn't have much contact with them - unless something goes wrong, "and then, I would know about it."

She can be tough on parents who find the underground unbearable, and will cut off all contact with them if it appears they are becoming a "security risk." That's because if they are caught, or turn themselves in, they might name names, she says.

And if a family is caught, they're pretty much on their own, although Yager will submit depositions on their behalf in any court trial on abduction charges. And occasionally, she will testify, although she claims she's such a good witness prosecutors are reluctant to call her.

Yager is always thinking about the next family in her underground, always plotting her next move, so sometimes it's hard to remember how cases turned out.

When a reporter showed her an Internet communication from an angry father who called himself "a victim of Faye Yager's Underground," she immediately recognized the name.

What she didn't realize, however, was that the man's ex-wife, who was in Yager's underground for two years before being caught, was ultimately not prosecuted and given full custody of her children earlier this year.

"Oh, I had NO idea," she said. "I lost contact with that one. Oh, I am SO glad it turned out that way for her."