Children of the Underground

Part 1 of a Dart Award-winning account of the hidden network that shelters youngsters escaping from sexual or physical abuse at home — real or alleged — and a judicial system perceived as unwilling or unable to help them. Originally published in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette in December, 1997.

Families on the Run in Constant Fear of Discovery

This is what April Meyer remembers about life in the underground.

She remembers sleeping in her car, and eating at McDonald's. She remembers whispered telephone conversations with contacts who would give her hopelessly complicated instructions -"look for the house with the upstairs left hand window light on," and so forth.

She remembers being helped by families that were mostly poor, with children, although an older lady with money once put them up in a hotel.

"You'd drive to an address and the people would run out the door and hand you money and groceries and then run back into their house," she recalls. "It seemed so - well, everyone seemed so scared. We were terrified. We didn't know if the police were following us, although you have to act like they're right behind you."

After a frantic trip across the country in 1988, Meyer and her boyfriend, Ken Brewster, who had fled with her, found a place to stay in Watkins Glen, N.Y., with a church minister. They remained there for three months.

And they took on new identities - Karen Ann and Dennis DeRosa, taken from birth certificates they found after researching names of deceased people who had been born in other states. Usually, that information isn't cross-referenced. And it is relatively easy to obtain a copy of a birth certificate by mail.

"We used to say that when Robyn Jo (April Meyer's and Ken Brewster's daughter) was probably the only little girl born to two dead people," Meyer recalled.

Meyer's toddler daughter, Amanda Otter - rechristened "Mandy May" - attended kindergarten and first grade in Watkins Glen. She adored her teacher, Mrs. Stout, who nurtured her voracious appetite for reading.

Despite all the precautions, it didn't take long for word to spread in Watkins Glen that the DeRosas were fugitives.

But no one went to authorities.

"They'd seen me on television, they knew I had left just four weeks before getting my teaching credentials, and I guess they decided that they believed me," Meyer said.

The couple lived partly on money sent by her family, and they went on welfare until "Dennis" could find a job as an electrician.

Perhaps the scariest moment came when April Meyer went to a government office to get a social security card, using her false papers. Her heart was pounding. "I kept trying to remember what it said on the birth certificate. Finally, it was my turn, and the guy asked me, why don't you have a copy of your card?"

And before she could think twice, she said, "Well, I've been out walking the streets and it's time to turn my life around."'

Good for you, he said. He gave her a copy of her social security card, and then, he did something else. He forgot to ask her for copies of her birth certificate.

"He'd asked everyone else in line, but for some reason he didn't ask me. An angel must have been sitting on my shoulder," she said. It meant that copies of her fraudulent birth certificate and other documentation weren't entered into the Social Security office's files, where a nosy detective might track them down.

Still the stress of living underground had taken its toll on the "DeRosas," and they split up - amicably.

Meyer and her daughters moved to Hilton, a small town near Rochester. There, April married Chris Meyer, who knew, of course, that she wasn't really Karen Ann DeRosa. She went on to have two other children with Chris Meyer, Matthew and Molly.

They were in Hilton only eight months.

Their house - which Chris Meyer had owned - had been listed for sale, and one day, there was a knock on the door.

"This guy is standing there, and he says he wants to look at the house. And of course, we had cleaned it all up and he came in and walked around, asking all sorts of questions, what kind of wood is this, how's the insulation. He seemed really interested in buying the house."

Amanda wasn't there, but there were pictures of her up on the wall.

And then, two days later, April Meyer was sitting in the kitchen, talking on the telephone to a girlfriend, after taking Amanda to school. The doorbell ran, and looking out the window, she saw the interested buyer again, walking around to the back yard.

"I opened up the window and leaned out and kind of joking, I said, `So you had to come back when the house was a mess,' and the man said, `Yeah.' "

Still on the telephone to her girlfriend, she made her way to the front door and opened it, and saw him and another man and a woman standing there, "and he comes in and says, `FBI. Put down the phone.' "

To this day, April Meyer does not know who turned her in. But she doesn't believe it was the people of Watkins Glen.

After Meyer was caught, a former neighbor of hers in Watkins Glen went down to the sheriff's office.

"He asked him, `Are you going to arrest all of us?' And the sheriff told him no. Turns out (the sheriff) had known too." A daughter's memories

Amanda Otter's earliest memory of the underground is a moment in the middle of the night, when she was 4, and she was awakened by her mother.

"She told me we were going to leave, and we had to be really quiet. I remember feeling like we were escaping something. We would drive around different places, live with people for two or three weeks, then move on."

Amanda remembers more clearly how her first journey through the underground ended, in February 1992.

"My teacher told me someone was waiting for me and started walking me down the hall, and she said, `Just remember this, your mom and dad both love you.' "

And then, she saw her mother, in handcuffs, weeping. "They've caught us," April Meyer told her daughter before being led away.

Robyn Jo was sent back to her father, Ken Brewster, and Amanda was sent to a foster home in California, while the courts hammered out custody and criminal issues.

Memories of the underground faded away.

But after she was finally sent to live with her father, Brian Otter, when she was 12, Amanda says, she decided to contact the woman who had helped her mother - Faye Yager.

After Yager agreed to assist her, they began to call each other frequently to plan strategy. Her mother knew nothing about her plans, she says.

The weekend before she left, Amanda visited her mother, stepfather and siblings, and their goodbyes were like any others - tearful, with long hugs, and holding hands in the car.

On Tuesday, January 28, Otter dropped his daughter off at the school bus stop in front of the Yucaipa Christian Church. A welcome sign in front of the church said "Come as you are, but do not leave as you came."

Had it rained, Amanda's father would have taken her to school directly - and aborted her flight.

Amanda waited until Otter drove out of sight. Then she told her friends she had forgotten something and walked back down the street towards her father's home.

But instead, she turned left and went down a dead-end street.

Walking faster, she remembers wondering whether she would be able to do this. "All I could think about was freedom."

She saw a beat up old car with a red ribbon tied on the antenna. She got inside.

The driver was "Sally," one of Yager's frequently used designations for her volunteers. They drove out of the city west on Interstate 10. Amanda sat in the back seat crying. She would weep intermittently throughout much of the trip.

As darkness fell, she lay in the back seat, staring, as orange beams from streetlights swept across her face.

They drove for what seemed like days, stopping only very briefly for food, Amanda recalls, and then, suddenly, they were at the "safe house." She was greeted by members of her new "family" and given a swift kiss goodbye from her escort, who then disappeared.

The next day, she stayed in the house by herself while the family went to school and work, watching "The Sound of Music" and periodically looking through the drawn shades in the house, waiting for her new family to come home, as she would every day for the next few months.

It's like being a foreign exchange student, she would tell herself - a chance to meet new people and visit new places.

But for awhile, Amanda could not leave the house until late in the day, when school was over, so her presence on the streets wouldn't attract attention. Then, in April, she was measured for a uniform at a Christian school, where the pastor and principal had agreed to let her attend under her new name, "Beth."

Amanda had always excelled in school, and had always made friends easily, and soon, she was talking on the phone with her schoolmates and going on sleepovers.

In May, Amanda's photograph appeared on the Internet as part of the search for her, and was sent to her school. A mid-level administrator intercepted it and threw it away.

In California, posters went up all over the state.

One was stapled to a telephone pole 100 yards from Meyer's home, by Brian Otter.

And then, one day, Faye Yager decided it was time to move Amanda again. She hugged her "family," walked out of the house and disappeared.

Network Symptom of Social Ills, Faulty Courts

Today's underground railroad is an entirely 20th century phenomenon, tied to such modern-day sociological ills as the breakdown of the family and to increased awareness of child sexual abuse - and sometimes, hysteria about it.

Some say these underground networks that hide parents and children are a pure expression of Baby Boomer behavior, driven by self-absorbed parents who refuse to take "no" for an answer when custody disputes don't work out the way they want.

Others say the underground is a symptom of a larger malady: the courts' inability or unwillingness to properly handle cases involving allegations of sexual abuse.

Not only are women in these cases rarely believed, but judges will often punish them for making the allegations by awarding custody to the father, say representatives of children's rights, feminist and domestic violence organizations.

Fathers' rights groups counter that they are the ones who are not believed by the courts. They are deprived of their right to see their children until false accusations are resolved, they say, and their reputations are forever tarnished.

When a woman walks into a courtroom and points to her husband, is she pointing at a child molester?

The evidence is far from conclusive.

The most widely quoted study was done in 1988 by the Denver-based Center for Policy Research. In a survey of 9,000 cases, the study's authors found that 50 percent of all contested custody cases alleging child sexual abuse were substantiated. The remaining cases, the study found, either lacked sufficient evidence to back up claims of abuse, or they were false.

But judges surveyed in the Denver study said they believed even those false claims had been made in good faith; the mother had convinced herself they were true.

There are at least 140,000 substantiated cases of child sexual abuse in the United States, most of them in families, but experts believe many more are never reported. On the other hand, since the total number of child abuse fatalities has remained steady over the past decade at about 1,000 a year, some experts think that the overall number of abused children is not growing.

Still, the people who run the underground networks say too many well-documented sexual abuse cases are simply not believed by the courts.

The abusers in these cases are overwhelmingly male, although the number of women abusers is rising. And the number of reported cases is many times greater than it was three decades ago - because today, society is more than willing to talk about it.

Schools teach children the difference between "good touching" and "bad touching;" states have enacted laws to publicly identify convicted child molesters; "incest survivors" groups are all over the Internet.

With the increased awareness of child sexual abuse and incest has come the inevitable backlash: groups like VOCAL, or Victims of Child Abuse Legislation, who contend that child protection laws are overly broad, if not unconstitutional, and controversial expert witnesses like Richard Gardner, a Columbia University psychiatrist, who believe that most child abuse sexual allegations are false and are made by vindictive women.

Sexual abuse allegations occur in only a very small percentage of all contested divorces.

But these cases are the ones that tie up the courts the longest, judges say, because it is so hard to know who is telling the truth. Frequently, a child can be sexually abused and exhibit no physical symptoms. Lacking clear medical evidence, judges must then rely on expert witnesses' testimony, which often conflicts.

And some experts say there is a natural tendency by judges to disbelieve such grotesque accusations - especially in the middle of a divorce case.

"Think about it from a human perspective. Is it more believable to a judge that a woman would act in a vindictive manner during a divorce - or that a man would sexually assault a 3-year-old child?" asks Linda Girdner, author of several studies on parental abduction for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Today, Girdner says, the burden has shifted to women to prove their claims.

Twenty years ago it was very different, child abuse experts say. Issues of incest and sexual abuse within families were just beginning to claim the public's attention. And in the rare cases that a child testified in court about being molested by a parent, he or she was always considered a reliable witness.

Today, the opposite is true. The collapse of several notable day care abuse cases in the 1980s has cast widespread doubt on children's credibility, even though most child abuse experts say it is possible to obtain accurate testimony when trained interviewers talk to children.

There is one other common feature of child custody disputes involving sexual abuse charges: Rarely are they publicized.

In the few instances when they do attract newspaper or television coverage, it's usually because one of the parents has decided to go underground.

Secret Network Hides Families on the Run

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.

Bending the Law to Defend the Children

It's 10 a.m. on a hot August morning in an elegant neighborhood of Sandy Springs. Already the cicadas are deafening, the humidity so thick that the mansion's leaded-glass front door sticks momentarily before lurching open to reveal a slight woman in a pale blue sailor dress.

"Mornin'," Faye Yager mumbles shyly, and then, eyes averted, she leads her visitors out of the heat and into the cool dark front hall.

"Sorry I couldn't see ya'll yesterday, but my daddy was in town, and I needed to spend time with him and get away from all this, y'know?" says Yager, making small talk as she walks past the elaborately carved staircase and the grand rooms stuffed with antiques and oil paintings, cut-crystal chandeliers and heavy silk curtains, and enters the huge kitchen where Lily, the maid, has been preparing lunch.

If life were a movie, this would be the house Scarlett and Rhett built, gorgeous, gloomy, just over-the-top in its display of new money and old furniture. And she could be Scarlett, with flawless Magnolia white skin, aquamarine eyes, dark hair piled loosely on her head, still youthfully pretty at 48, except for her mouth - a hard, ruby red slash.

When asked how she's doing, Yager sighs, and then, the small talk gets big, real quick.

"I got a woman comin' in from Indiana, and I got another comin' in tomorrow night," she says. "And then, there's Tessy Kittle, who couldn't go underground with her little girl because of her diabetes. They're gonna arrest her for not tellin' where the child is! She doesn't know where she is, and they're gonna throw her in jail anyway.

"Y'all want a cup of coffee?"

So this is the woman who hides the children. This is the nemesis of the FBI and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the darling of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Mothers Against Sexual Abuse, star of features in Life, People, U.S. News & World Report, Redbook, and all the talk shows, although it's been a lot quieter since her big trial in 1992, which was covered live on Court TV and in which she was acquitted of kidnapping and cruelty-to-children charges.

To some, what Yager does is patently illegal and outrageous. To others, it is an act of profound mercy. She helps mothers - and sometimes, fathers - abduct their own children, after they have failed to convince a judge that the other parent is abusing those children, usually by sexually molesting them.

It starts with a phone call, sometimes from a frantic parent, sometimes a referral from social workers, pediatricians, domestic violence counselors and even an occasional police chief. She requires documentation of abuse - custody orders, medical records, before she will act - and, if satisfied, she will begin calling contacts in this country and abroad, scouting places to hide her fugitive families. She charges no money, relying on donations from her volunteers. But runaway families must, she makes clear, have the means to make it on their own, once she has helped them enter the underground.

To some, she is a heroine, doing hard, dangerous work, like the Abolitionists who hid slaves on the underground railroad. To others, she is a vigilante who destroys lives and families and children, subjecting them to a life without roots, identity or two parents.

"What she does is unconscionable," says Kim Hart, director of the National Child Abuse Defense Resource Center and an Ohio-based lawyer who specializes in defending people accused of child abuse.

Hart once appeared on a television talk show opposite Yager. Lined up with a bunch of Yager-bashers, she got only one chance to speak her mind. "Who died and made you God?" she shouted, as the audience hooted gleefully.

"I hate Faye Yager," Hart said fiercely in a later interview with this newspaper. "I hate what she is doing to this country. She is helping poison women against men. She is turning the Constitution into toilet paper" by depriving those accused of child abuse due process in court. And, she adds, Yager is no savior of women and children, sending them to safe houses that are little more than "drug-infested hellholes" and pocketing their money.

But Hart's last claim is dismissed by Charles Pickett, who, as an investigator with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is no fan of Yager's either.

"I don't think she's in it for the money," says Pickett. But he also doesn't believe that she picks cases very well.

"Anytime you're a zealot, and you set yourself up to work outside the system, you run the danger of playing God and then tragedies can happen," adds John Rabun, another official of the exploited children center.

"She believes in what she's doing, that's for sure. I've got great respect for her integrity. I just disagree with her methods."

For Yager, it doesn't matter who has legal custody, or what the courts have said, because she is the court of last resort here, the self-appointed finder of fact.

Whether on the road or at home, she is always on the phone, constantly assessing who should go underground and who shouldn't. She researches each candidate, to be sure, but also says she can make a decision almost instantly, just by looking into someone's eyes.

She is not always right, she admits, but she claims a better track record than many judges in America, who, she believes, either don't know enough about child sexual abuse, or don't want to know, or believe that the accuser - almost always the mother - is doing it because she's vindictive or crazy.

They called her crazy once, too.

That was 25 years ago, when she told a judge she had walked in on her husband, Roger Jones, while he was molesting their 2-year-old daughter. Jones tried to have her committed to a mental institution, and even though her little girl had contracted gonorrhea, the judge threw Yager in jail for hiding her daughter, and gave Jones custody.

Years later, his daughter came forward and said she was sexually abused by her father, but by then, nearly 60 other children had become Jones' victims, the FBI would later estimate. He became the first child molester on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, and is serving a 30-year jail term in Florida for sexually abusing two other young girls and a 10-year-old boy. Michelle, Yager's daughter, lives in Tennessee and works as a dog trainer, and visits her mother frequently.

The story could have ended there. Yager remarried, had four more children, and lives a comfortable life with her doctor husband.

But in 1987, after more than a decade of full-time mothering, interior decorating, charity balls and country club lunches, Yager decided to, as she put it, "get a real job. Somethin' worthwhile."

She started her underground.

She gave notice first, calling the ladies of the Speech School Guild, the Ansley Country Club, the Rose Society, the Botanical Gardens, the Atlanta Ballet.

"We were having lunch, and I told them that I was going to be hidin' these kids. I told them not to send me any invitations to any of their parties, because if I came to their parties the FBI agents might be following me. And I didn't want them to be mad at me for not coming."

"They were pretty shocked," she says, with a cackle.

Since then, she says, she has helped thousands of people, juggling a dozen cases a month. Others - law enforcement officials and rival underground groups - say Yager is prone to exaggeration, that the numbers overall are probably in the hundreds. Her "safe houses" - where ordinary families hide the children - are in all 50 states, but her operations have expanded overseas, too. In those cases, her contacts provide fleeing mothers and children with false passports. It's an illegal activity that Yager claims she leaves to others.

Every day, the phone in her kitchen rings, giving Yager one more chance to relive her past and to correct it, to rewrite the script so that this time, she has the power to protect the children. The calls are from Alabama and Arkansas and the West Coast, and the distraught voices always ask the same question:

Will you help me? Testing the volunteers

On this day, the first phone call came shortly before lunch.

It was one of her volunteers. They call her up at all times of the day or night, even when there's nothing going on, looking for errands to run, people to hide.

"They ask me, 'Faye, what can I do for you? Just tell me what I can do.'"

At first, when they are new, she gives them little errands -drop off groceries, research court files - until she is comfortable they can be trusted with bigger jobs: hiding mothers on the run, placing the children in schools with no questions asked, finding employment for mothers. She readily admits her underground may be riddled with informers, but adds that only a handful of her mothers and children have been caught by the authorities.

But she is, by her own admission, "paranoid just the same." It is paranoia born from experience and from Yager's own craving for cloak-and-dagger drama. It surfaces frequently throughout this day: a mother who doesn't show up at a nearby supermarket for an agreed-upon meeting is immediately suspect, maybe a front for the FBI; a white pickup truck pulling up outside her house sends her into a state of red alert: she peers through the windows, clutching at her throat - until the driver lazily pulls a lawnmower out of the truckbed.

But even paranoids can have real enemies. In 1990, a mother Yager had agreed to meet turned her over to police.

The woman, who had asked Yager to help hide her children from an abusive spouse, claimed Yager had kidnapped and verbally abused the children during her interviews with them. That led to a trial two years later that was carried live on Court TV. She was acquitted, and Yager still believes the case was a setup.

Today, Yager picks her cases more carefully than she did in the past, agreeing to meet with only a few who come with good references, people she dubs "runnin' material" - those with resources and backbone, who are unlikely to crack under the pressure of hiding, give themselves up or allow themselves to be caught, which could place the rest of the underground at risk.

Occasionally, she turns the tables and reports people to the police - like the woman Yager arranged to meet once in a motel.

"I was alone with her little boy, and he did not look so good, he was all dirty. He was lookin' out the window, and I asked him, `Do I need to help you?' and he said `Yes,' and I asked, `What can I do to help you?' and he looks out window and says `I could just dig a hole in those woods and get in it and nobody could find me.' And I asked him `Does your momma need to be in the hole with you?' And he said, `Oh no!' And then I asked him, `Would you like your daddy in there with you?' and he said, `Yes, but he isn't here.'

"It just 'bout broke my heart to see that little fellow talkin' like that. That's when I knew something was funny 'bout the mother and I had police pick her up at McDonald's." The woman was charged with abusing the boy. The strange tale

The phone rings again.

It's a 53-year-old woman calling from a battered women's shelter in Arkansas. Her estranged husband has been threatening to kill her, and the woman believes he is responsible for the murder of her boyfriend, although police say they don't have enough evidence to prove it.

"You say he SLIT HIS THROAT?" Yager says, momentarily startled.

"He's been arrested for abuse? It's all in the divorce petition?" Yager rocks back in her chair, smiling.

"You come to Atlanta and see me," she says soothingly. "Yeah, I'm Southern and you're Southern and we're gonna get along jes' fine."

A pause. The woman frets about leaving her cat behind if she goes underground.

"Well, if you're worried about your life, the cat'll have to go. And don't forget the death certificates, any information about the murder."

Another pause.

"Oh ... my ... God ... " Yager is incredulous, sputtering. "Your husband is a ... professor . .. of ... psychology?" And then, suddenly, she shrieks with laughter.

"Then he must be a pretty sick man, huh? And you really think he murdered this boy? Well, come along," she says, hanging up, a Cheshire Cat smile on her lips.

To a visitor, it all seems highly improbable. If the woman has all this evidence, why doesn't she give it to the district attorney?

"Honey, the man is from Alabama. The district attorney is from Alabama. The further south you go, the worse it gets."

She's dead serious. A 1987 case in Hattiesburg, Miss., in fact, was the direct impetus for her underground. After reading about a judge who had jailed a woman for hiding her children from the father, whom she had accused of sexually abusing them, Yager decided to leave for Mississippi.

"My husband told me, `Faye, don't go down there, they're gonna murder you and dump your body in the river,' and I said, `Honey, I've got to go.' And he said, `What're you gonna do?' and I said, `I don't know, I'll wait and see when I get there.' "

When she got there, she called the judge.

"He didn't know me from Adam's housecat, and I said, `Judge, why you givin' that child over to that child molester?' "

"And he said, 'Ma'am, there are some things you don't know about this case that couldn't be printed in the papers. Did you know that her lawyer is a lesbian?' "

Later, in the trial, the mother herself was asked by a court-appointed lawyer for the children if she was a lesbian; he didn't ask the father any questions about his sexual orientation.

She snorts contemptuously at the memory. "There are three things a child molester hunts with in a courtroom. She's a whore, a lesbian, or she's crazy. A lesbian! Heck! She can pray to the daffy-dills, I don't care what she does," as long as the children are safe.

Yager's argument failed with that judge and, after six weeks in jail, the mother relented and gave her child up to the father.

And Yager was on her way to a new life. She started hiding people in similar circumstances in her house, and then, solicited volunteers to lend their homes, or pay for motels or food or transportation.

She got support from Christian fundamentalists - some of whom believe that there is a connection between Satanism and child sexual abuse. And she was backed by feminist groups who believe the courts are biased against women.

But Yager doesn't fit easily into either category. She's no feminist - "mothers should stay home with their children," she believes. And she's no fundamentalist, rarely attending church, although she shares some of that group's aversions. She has frequently voiced her distaste for "queers" in print and on television.

Still, she insists she is no homophobe and acknowledges that pedophilia - adult sexual attraction to children - is as common in heterosexuals as in homosexuals.

She thinks she knows a child molester when she sees one, and has not hesitated to stand up in the visitors' gallery of a courtroom and accuse defendants or witnesses of pedophilia or Satanism or other perversions, prompting numerous lawsuits for defamation.

She never contests the defamation cases, and the plaintiffs always win by default. But Yager doesn't pay up: she declared herself legally bankrupt in 1992 and rode to the court proceeding in her husband's Rolls-Royce (which has since been sold to pay for the legal costs of her criminal trial).

Before she even started the underground, she had placed all her assets in her husband's name. So lawsuits don't faze her.

"I'm bein' sued by child molesters in nine states," she brags. Suddenly, she's in hot water

Several weeks later, Yager is on the telephone again - this time with a reporter.

"You'd better get down here. It's getting hot," she says tersely. "It seems that some judge is fixin' to put ol' Faye in jail."

A few hours later, a visitor arrives at the big Atlanta house and happens upon Yager, resplendent in a brown chiffon caftan, holding court for the television cameras on her back porch. It is a leafy, shadowy place, with lots of dark green wicker furniture and hanging baskets of ferns, and she is reclining on one of the sofas with the flowered chintz pillows, staring into a white hot television light while a reporter from the local NBC affiliate interviews her.

The story's been all over Atlanta TV and newspapers by now: A young woman in nearby Carroll County is in jail for hiding her 7-year-old daughter during a custody battle, claiming the father molested the little girl. Yager hid the child at the woman's urging, and now a judge is threatening to put Yager in jail if she doesn't produce the child.

The child's name is Jayde, and her father, Kenneth Ellis, was tried and acquitted in 1996 on charges that he had sexually abused her several years earlier. A judge ordered that the father be allowed to visit the child, first under the supervision of family members, to be followed eventually by unsupervised weekend visits.

No way, said Jayde's mother, Tessy Lynn Kittle, who contacted Yager. Since Kittle, a severe diabetic, could not handle life underground, Yager agreed to send Jayde to a "safe house" alone in October 1996.

Now, nearly a year later, the judge had issued his final contempt order: produce the girl or else. And on Sept. 23, Kittle turned herself in to the county jail, mobbed by camera crews and reporters, and accompanied by her aunt, Angie Jeffers, and Yager, to whom she had turned over Jayde's legal guardianship papers.

Ellis was nowhere to be seen. He was not talking to the local media, who he believed had portrayed him unfairly.

Indeed, Yager had showered the judge and the news media with papers documenting Ellis' past history of drug and alcohol abuse, in the hope that the court would either forbid all visits between father and daughter, or issue a stricter visitation order.

Just before she disappeared into her jail cell, Kittle told the media that Ellis "was acquitted and he does have rights, but I do know the abuse did happen. I'm trying to get the message out there that you have to speak up . . . the media is the only ear I have because the justice system is not going to help this little girl."

But jail had not been easy for Kittle.

On her first night, a missed shot of insulin sent her into a semi-coma, with her blood sugar zooming to three times its normal level.

Yager wants the media to broadcast this story to the rafters.

But instead, the TV reporter on the porch has other ideas.

"Is it fair to say," the reporter booms, in his best news conference voice, "Faye is back?"

She looks momentarily peeved at the question, which has absolutely nothing to do with the case at hand, but she recovers.

"Faye Yager's never gone anywhere," she says regally, leaning against her flowered pillows. "I'm not going to fold up. Tessy might be going to fold up in that jail with the sugar and all that, but I'm not. I'd really rather not call attention to myself, though. I wish you'd stay focused on the issue. That woman's flat dyin' in that jail." More bad news

A few hours after her TV interviews, Yager gets more disturbing news.

Kittle has apparently signed an affidavit claiming she was brainwashed by her family and Yager into hiding her daughter. She now wants Yager to produce the little girl so she can be released from jail.

"That's not her talkin', it's the blood sugar talkin'." says Yager indignantly the next morning, as her car wheeled onto the interstate toward rural Georgia.

If Yager and Kittle's aunt don't produce Jayde, they could face jail. At Yager's 1992 trial, she faced 60 years in prison, but this poses a new and possibly more dangerous threat.

"I tell you, my biggest fear isn't the FBI, it's these county judges," she says. "At least the feds, they follow all the right procedures and everythin', but these local judges don't care. They can do anythin' they want, they can put a poor girl in jail without bond and withhold her insulin till she gives in and it don't matter."

Actually, this is a classic Faye Yager crisis. It has happened before, and it will happen again. A child is in hiding; a judge is threatening jail. But there's a twist this time. The child's mother is not underground. She is telling the court she wants Yager to produce the child, and now, Yager is between a rock and a hard place.

Yager pulls off the road into a local family eatery to meet up with Kittle's family, which she calls "the wolfpack."

Actually, it's what they call themselves, too: Angie Jeffers, Tessy Kittle's aunt; Norma Baldwin, Tessy's grandmother; and Norma's husband, Clay Baldwin, have traveled in a pack, as fierce as wolves protecting their young: filing affidavits, pestering lawyers, calling the media.

After hugs and exclamations, Yager and the "wolfpack" head south, towards the town of LaGrange, 40 miles away, looking for Judge Quilliam Baldwin, who is no relation to Kittle's grandparents.

"I run this thing like a football game," Yager muses as the car rockets past serene golden fields and red barns. "What I always have to do is play offense. I have got to get that judge to understand that they have been withholding Tessie's insulin, she's sicker than a dog, she's not in her right mind.

"I'll find out where that judge has lunch and then I'll have lunch with the judge." Maybe her visit won't change his mind, she said, "but he won't forget it." A tense showdown

But Judge Baldwin is not in his LaGrange office. He has taken the afternoon off, says his secretary.

"Is he goin' to put me in jail?" Yager asks the secretary, who stares back, wary and stunned at the sight of the woman in the crisp black linen jacket and flowing skirt and dark glasses who looks more like a suburban real estate broker than a lawbreaker.

Across the street at the courthouse, Yager finally encounters Peter Skandalakis, the district attorney, and gets to ask the same question, the one that's been gnawing at her all day and the night before.

This is the man who would put Yager in jail, if called to do so. Skandalakis is also the same man who prosecuted Kenneth Ellis for child sexual abuse, and lost.

In his office, Yager grips her armchair handles. Her neck turns bright red. For once, she seems rattled.

"You can tell me if - well, Tessy Kittles' blood sugar is up to 400 in that jail, Mr. Skandalakis, they're abusin' her in that jail and . . . "

Skandalakis, polite, but terse, interrupts her.

"It is my understanding that Ms. Kittles says that she does not know the whereabouts of the child, and that she is being held in contempt of the court until the child is produced."

"But Peter," says Jeffers, "You're asking us to produce the child so we can turn her over to the man you indicted on child molestation charges."

"I am an officer of the court, Ms. Jeffers, and - "

"Now, honey - " Yager says.

"Don't call me honey," Skandalakis says evenly, then turns to Jeffers to explain, again, why the case he brought against Ellis failed. It was always a weak case, he tells her firmly. He believed the child had been abused, but there was plenty of room for reasonable doubt.

And now, it's up to Yager to do the judge's bidding: Produce the child.

And if she doesn't?

There is a long, long pause, as if everyone in the room is holding their breath.

"I can't say that jail is in my plans at this time. But if the child is not produced, I will have to call the FBI into the case."

Then he adds, somberly, but gently: "Ladies, the ball is in your court." Professor Faye

It is five days later, in Bloomington, Ind.

Hal Pipinsky, a professor of criminal justice at Indiana University, teaches a course called "Alternative Social Control Systems."

Today's guest lecturer: Faye Yager.

The crisis in Carroll County is never far from her mind, but while jail continues to be a possibility, today, Yager is playing professor, not outlaw.

It is the fifth year Yager has come to IU, at her own expense, just as she does at Kentucky State and other schools in the United States and Canada. She says she welcomes the chance to speak at colleges and universities so that she can expose future lawyers, judges and social workers to the reasons why the underground exists.

But it must also be a kind of therapy, too, to be treated with the courtesy and undivided attention that Yager receives here.

It is something that has eluded her in places like the Carroll County Courthouse. There, and in other courtrooms, or on television, she has always been portrayed as the outsider, the agitator, talking fast and loud to make her point: sometimes shouting, sometimes picketing, buttonholing impatient judges or clerks or lawyers who would rather be somewhere else.

Here, she is Professor Faye, dignified, resplendent in dark forest green silk and pearls. Here, she speaks, and people respectfully take notes.

She has perched all her memorabilia on a table for the students to examine after the lecture. There are the mug shots of her ex-husband, Roger Jones, taken when he was arrested for child molestation; her white notebooks, each containing the documents for a particular case; the dogeared copies of Life and Redbook and U.S. News & World Report containing the stories about her; the leaflets she would pass out in front of the courthouses she picketed, saying, "LOCK YOUR KIDS UP IF YOU SPOT THIS MAN!"

Yager then asks that the lights be dimmed so she can show a videotape. It is of a social worker literally trying to drag three cowering children into a room to visit with their father. The eldest child has been raped by him, Yager says, but the court has ordered supervised visits nonetheless.

The class watches in stunned silence at the sight of the three children on the floor, weeping, while the social worker yanks helplessly at their arms. The three-year-old puts her arms protectively around the 12-year-old girl and says, "leave my sister alone."

The lights go on, and Yager looks expectantly at the class, mostly white, middle-class students in athletic jerseys.

"That social worker would have lost her job if she didn't do that. She had to do that. This stuff happens all the time, every day, in every state" she says, watching the students' faces.

"Those kids are safe now. That videotape was taken before the mother ran. Don't get upset," she says lightly.

There is complete silence. A young man shakes his head.

"I want you to remember these faces. If you ever decide to be a social worker, don't get caught up in that system where you're afraid to lose your job, even if what they ask you to do is not right.

"You remember those children. You get out there, and you can change this. And then, there won't be no more Faye Yagers, once you change this." Postscript

Six weeks later, on Nov. 15, Yager went into her own underground and did something she had never done before.

She picked up Jayde Ellis, 8-year-old daughter of Tessy Kittle and Kenneth Ellis, and brought her back to Georgia. Then, on Nov. 18, she delivered the child to Judge Baldwin.

Yager did it, she says, because Jayde's mother wanted it that way and because she had finally persuaded the judge to guarantee that each visit between Jayde and her father would be supervised until mid-1998.

Even when Faye Yager loses, she wins.

The next day, content that this girl was safe for the time being, Yager is back in her kitchen. The phone rings. And it starts again.

A Passion to Protect

Why isn't Faye Yager in jail?

Her underground is illegal. Mothers who hide with their children - even if it's from a sexually abusive father - are usually in violation of custody orders. Sometimes they are wanted for kidnapping. Their documents are false. There's often credit card fraud, bank fraud, insurance fraud.

But Yager remains free. She says she is careful not to do anything illegal herself. She personally only gives women money and advice.

Yager may or may not be telling the truth. But if law enforcement officials are currently investigating her, they aren't saying. The FBI declined to comment on Yager, or to grant an interview with the special agent who has tracked Yager's movements for years.

There is even evidence that some in the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have sympathy for Yager's network and others like it.

Gus Zamora, a private investigator from Florida who specializes in tracking down children who have been abducted and taken to other countries, says he knows that the FBI has occasionally backed off from investigating Yager.

"Faye has stepped in to shield people, and the FBI was in total agreement they were very bad cases and didn't go after them. I had one agent telling me that in one case, his opinion was the guy was a pervert," says Zamora.

Leaders of other underground movements say they, too, have been given some slack by FBI agents.

One described a lengthy interrogation session that ended when the agent told her she could continue with her work.

"I showed him information about the cases, and he told me I was probably right, morally, to hide these families. He said I could keep on doing it, as long as no federal warrants were out for that family's arrest."

She also noted that the police chief in her town would give her two hours' notice before showing up at her house with an arrest warrant, so she could move her runaway families beforehand.

In the past, police considered parental abductions to be private matters. Even the tough federal law that led to the death penalty for Bruno Hauptmann in the 1932 kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby omitted parental abductions from its purview.

But the 1980 Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act changed that - at least officially. There is now greater cooperation between national and local law enforcement agencies in tracking cases of parental abduction, although in reality, they still are not a top priority.

Often, when local police learn Faye Yager is involved, the case moves down the priority list even further, say some.

"Prosecutors, for the most part, understand what it is she is doing," says DeKalb County District Attorney Tom Morgan in Georgia.

"If it happened in my county, I'd look at the facts, but even if the (abducting) parent was guilty of a crime, I'd have to look at the likelihood of conviction, and in many cases Faye can convince a jury to acquit."

Of course, not all district attorneys feel the same way. Joseph O'Connor, prosecutor in Lewiston, Me., did not hesitate to throw the book at one woman who had hidden in Yager's underground and other organized networks for six years. After she was caught, Esther Ahonen was jailed for six months until she finally pleaded guilty to kidnapping charges, which she says she did to spare her children from having to testify at her trial.

"The statute is pretty clear," says O'Connor. "She was in violation of a court order giving him custody. She took the children and disappeared. There's not much subtlety there. To what extent do you let people take the law into their own hands?"

Yager herself was not prosecuted in that case, however. And in the one instance where she was taken to trial, she won.

Some even think it was planned that way.

In 1990, local police in Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta, arrested her on charges of kidnapping and cruelty to children.

Myrna Watts had met Yager in a motel with her two children, seeking help in fleeing an abusive spouse. But prosecutors claimed that Yager had coerced these children and others into making false statements about sexual abuse. The children's mother said she was appalled by their treatment when Yager interviewed them on videotape.

Yager and her supporters claimed it was a set-up engineered by an FBI agent who assisted local police in the case. During the trial, the agent testified briefly, but provided little information about the bureau's efforts to stop Yager.

While prosecutors presented videos of Yager questioning children in an aggressive, occasionally harsh manner - sometimes reducing a child to tears - they didn't count on the real impact of those tapes: child after child recounting gruesome acts of sexual abuse, and the children's statements then being confirmed by witnesses called by her defense attorneys in court.

After a four-week trial, which was broadcast live on Court TV, and three hours of deliberation, a jury acquitted Yager.

Many longtime Faye Yager observers, both supporters and detractors, suspect it was planned that way.

"Either it was the most incompetent prosecution ever, or a total laydown. I think they threw the case," says Kim Hart, a Yager opponent and director of the National Child Abuse Defense Resource Center, an Ohio-based organization that specializes in defending people accused of child sexual abuse.

"The 1992 case against her was an incredibly weak case," adds Alan Rosenfeld, a Boulder, Colo., lawyer who specializes in defending women who have taken their children into hiding.

"I've seen files in other cases in which it was clear the FBI had much more information on her, but they didn't go after her," he says.

That information may even have come from informants within Yager's network, Rosenfeld believes. He once defended a woman who sent her child into Yager's underground. The woman who hid the child was an informer for the FBI, and turned the child in, Rosenfeld says.

"The FBI could shut her down tomorrow if they wanted to," says Rosenfeld. But they don't, he adds, because "they recognize she serves a legitimate social purpose. She's a pressure valve for these bad cases. Something has to be done to protect these children, and Faye is doing it."

Here's How to Disappear Into Faye's 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."

Two Families Endlessly Await Child's Return

When Peg Sawyer drives past the home of John and Marian Sinkey at night, she sees a forlorn-looking house with its blinds down, lights out or barely visible.

"And I think, what poor, lonesome people. What kind of a life must they have without their granddaughter?"

Sawyer knows what kind of life it is.

Because the Sinkey's grandchild is her grandchild too.

Ten years ago, Emily Michelle Sawyer vanished into the underground, just five days before her fifth birthday, with her mother Carol Sinkey Sawyer - the Sinkeys' daughter.

And today, the impact of Emily's disappearance on the people she left behind is still making itself felt, in ways big and small.

Carol Sawyer's flight, on April 1, 1988, from her south Toledo apartment, came after a seven-month investigation failed to convince Lucas County social services workers that ex-husband Daniel Sawyer had molested his daughter, as Carol Sawyer contended.

She fled one day before a Lucas County judge was expected to remove custody of Emily from her and give it to Daniel.

"The jig was up, and everybody knew it," says Julia Bates, Toledo's top prosecutor, who was working as an assistant prosecutor at that time. "And everybody knew it was going to happen the next day."

And, it seems people in Carol Sawyer's family also knew that she might flee with her daughter.

"Carol had told my husband months before that she would run," Sherry Sinkey, who is married to Carol's brother, Richard, says. Mel Pomeranz, Emily's court-appointed advocate, also was told, she says, "but I don't think he believed it would happen."

After she did run, Daniel Sawyer sued Carol's parents, claiming they had helped her go into hiding and had supported her financially. The Sinkeys claimed to know nothing about it, and a jury found in their favor.

Sawyer and his second wife, Kathie, now live in Virginia. He is no longer actively hunting for his daughter and declined to be interviewed for this story.

But Daniel's mother, Peg Sawyer, 74 and a retired nurse, finds solace in continuing to search for Emily, who is now 14, but in Sawyer's mind is still the 4-going-on-5-year-old who once helped her bake cookies.

"I used to look at little girls on the street and see her in my mind's eye. Now I have to remind myself to think of her as a teen-ager," says Peg Sawyer.

And she has to remind herself of something else.

"She could probably contact us now on her own if she wanted to."

But she hasn't. A troubled marriage

Faye Yager readily admits helping Carol Sawyer flee.

But within a year, Sawyer and she had a disagreement, and parted company. Sawyer is now hiding with the help of another underground network.

Sawyer was one of Yager's early cases. Because of that, Yager doesn't have much in the way of documents to back up her claims that Emily Sawyer was abused.

"That happened a long time ago, and my record-keeping wasn't as good as it is now," says Yager.

Carol Sawyer's flight into the underground was preceded, as most of Yager's cases are, by a nasty court battle. And, like many of those cases, it wasn't even about custody. The Sawyers already were divorced, and Carol Sawyer had custody of her daughter.

In Sherry Sinkey's mind, the legal wranglings were about one thing, and one thing only:

"Jealousy. Carol never got over the fact that Dan remarried."

When Emily was born in 1983, the Sawyers were living in Washington, D.C., where Daniel was pursuing a career in sales and marketing for a medical manufacturing firm.

In 1985, they divorced, and Carol Sawyer moved back to Toledo, where she became a physical therapist for the Toledo public schools.

Daniel Sawyer remarried in 1987. And soon afterwards, he asked Emily to come visit him, his new bride Kathleen and Kathleen's 10-year-old son, Scott.

A few days after the visit, Virginia's Department of Social Services notified the Sawyers that an anonymous caller had reported that Kathie Sawyer's son, Scott, had been sexually abused.

That meant state officials had to investigate, but they later dropped the matter when they could find no evidence of abuse.

But that information had not reached a Toledo court by the time Carol Sawyer asked it to suspend her ex-husband's visitation rights, and her request was granted. Then, Carol Sawyer, citing allegations Emily made to a therapist, accused her ex-husband of sexually abusing Emily.

While officials investigated those claims, Daniel Sawyer wasn't allowed to see Emily for seven months, although the court permitted Emily to visit his parents.

Finally, child abuse investigators cleared Sawyer of the charges. The judge said Daniel could have his daughter for a visit on Easter weekend.

But before that could happen, Carol Sawyer and the child disappeared. Did the grandparents help?

Shortly after that, John and Marion Sinkey went to court to seek custody of Emily in their daughter's absence. Their request was denied by Judge Robert Dorrell, who awarded custody to Daniel Sawyer.

The Sinkeys' appearance in court made the Sawyers suspicious that they had helped their daughter get away.

During the custody hearing, the Sinkeys had been questioned about the disappearance of Carol Sinkey Sawyer's van. Marion Sinkey told the court she didn't know what had happened to it.

But the Sawyers' lawyer later claimed that the van had been traded in to a Buick dealership in Toledo "in connection with the purchase of a 1988 Buick station wagon by John Sinkey."

The Buick was the car Carol Sawyer fled in, contended Richard Malone, the Sawyers' lawyer. But the Sinkeys never reported it missing.

There also were discrepancies in the Sinkeys' testimony about where they were when their daughter fled. They said they were at home. Pomeranz stopped there that day and couldn't see any signs of life.

The Sawyers urged county prosecutors to pursue perjury charges against the Sinkeys. The district attorney's office declined.

Robert Sawyer says the reason is obvious: Anthony Pizza, Toledo's top prosecutor at the time, had a close relationship with John Sinkey, who is a prominent physician. Sinkey had treated Pizza's daughter for cancer, and "we think the Sinkeys got to Pizza."

Pizza, who could not be reached for comment, has denied the Sawyers' claims.

And Julia Bates, who now serves as Lucas County prosector, says Pizza's hands were tied for technical reasons.

Carol Sawyer, Bates says, "was the lawful custodian, and how do you prove that she knew custody was going to be transferred? No court order had been signed when she left."

Because she wasn't served with papers notifying her of the transfer of custody to her ex-husband, she was not officially in violation of any law.

The custody transfer to Daniel Sawyer also wasn't enough for the FBI to get involved.

That's because in Ohio, violating a custody order is not automatically a felony.

Law enforcement officials in Ohio can go to a grand jury to seek indictments on "child stealing" charges, which would clear the way for a federal arrest warrant, but they declined to do so in Carol Sawyer's case. Evidence was sketchy, and "if we did it for her, it would open the floodgates for everyone who comes to us," Bates said.

Still, the Saywers didn't give up. They hired a detective to go through the Sinkeys' garbage to look for leads, and a few years later, Daniel Sawyer filed a civil lawsuit against the Sinkeys, alleging that they had helped their daughter go into hiding.

After one of the longest jury deliberations in Toledo history, the jury found for the Sinkeys.

The Sawyers believe today that the Sinkeys are still in contact with their daughter and granddaughter.

"Carol Sinkey was a girl who couldn't pass a day without talking to her mother. What's to stop her now?" asks Peg Sawyer. A divided family

The Sinkey family has been far from unanimous in its support of Carol's actions, says Sherry Sinkey.

"It really divided loyalties," she says, pitting the parents and Carol's sister Jean against Carol's two brothers, Ken and Richard, and their wives, who were horrified to learn that Emily had been taken into hiding.

Today, it is a taboo subject at family gatherings and holidays, says Sherry Sinkey.

"There is no discussion of it. Ever. It's a closed subject, and that's the most startling thing."

"Whether the abuse happened or not, no one is willing to say. These things are so hard to know," says Sherry Sinkey, a counselor in the Rossford Public Schools. "But we couldn't imagine that running was in Emily's interest at all."

It's not clear what Sawyer's life underground with her daughter has been like. Yager and other underground organizers declined requests for contact with Sawyer, although they insist all is well.

Dorrell, the judge, voiced concerns that Carol Sawyer and her child might both be in danger because of Sawyer's emotional problems.

That characterization is rejected by the underground organizers who helped her flee.

"She is the most stable person I know," one underground contact claims, saying that at one point she helped Sawyer resettle into a job as a physical therapist.

"She had to take the state test, and after it was over, she came back and said she deliberately missed some questions, in case they were looking for her because of her membership in MENSA," the source says.

"Then, we got notified by the state that Carol had the highest scores in the test's history. And they wanted to present her with an award!"

But that upbeat anecdote is countered by Pomeranz, who doesn't view life underground as a funny matter.

"She sure hasn't helped that child's life any. She made a whole bunch of choices the child couldn't consent to. In my mind it was a travesty. Emily's whole world was turned upside down."

In 1993, ADVO, a national direct mail distributor of missing children postcards, sent out cards featuring Emily Sawyer's face, computer-enhanced to make her look 10.

But because there is no federal arrest warrant for her, Carol Sawyer's face wasn't on the card. Waiting birthday gifts

If Emily Sawyer ever returns to Toledo, she will find a stack of white envelopes waiting for her at her aunt's house, each of them containing $15 - one for every birthday and Christmas that she has missed.

"We recognize every one of Emily's birthdays," says Sherry Sinkey, "just as we do our own children's, and their cousins'. There's no reason why she shouldn't be entitled to $15 just as they are."

"I don't ever want her to think we forgot about her on her birthdays or on holidays. And when we meet again - and we will meet, one day - I'll want her to know that."

Peg Sawyer is also convinced she will see Emily again. A recent bout with colon cancer hasn't slowed her down, or dimmed her hopes that she will find her granddaughter before she dies.

On the top shelf of a guest room closet, Peg Sawyer still keeps birthday presents that she and her husband had planned to give Emily when she turned 5.

Recently, the gaily wrapped gifts were spotted by the Sawyer's twin grandchildren, who are now 5.

"I explained who they were for, and why we couldn't give them to her," Peg Sawyer says.

"And they just looked me in the face and said, `Well, Grandma, why don't you just find her and give her her presents?' "

"And I explained to them, I'm trying. I'm still trying."

Where to Turn When a Child is Missing

What can a father do when his child disappears into a well-organized network of "safe houses," where the child's name - and sometimes appearance - may be changed, and scores of people around the country and the world work passionately to keep the child securely hidden?

He can file a missing person report with local police, and ask that they investigate; he can call the FBI, and ask that his child's photograph be put in the bureau's national computer database.

He can dial the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's toll-free hotline, for information and tips.

Or he can call any number of "child-finders," like Mark Miller, a Latrobe native who now runs the American Association for Missing Children, a non-profit group based in Texas, that tracks down children for free.

Or, if he's wealthy, he can hire a private investigator, who might charge upwards of $1,000 a day.

But chances are slim that even after doing all this, he will ever find his child.

Hunting for missing children is an immensely frustrating task. There are 350,000 parental abductions in any given year, and tracking those cases are not a top priority for overburdened police departments. Often, police officers don't even comply with laws that require them to file missing children reports with the National Crime Information Center. The Center is a computer database run by the FBI that allows agencies across the country to cross-check information about fugitives.

And if a child is located, legal procedures for return to the custodial parent vary from state to state, which can confuse left-behind parents and their lawyers - and cause delays that sometimes allow the abductor and her children to escape again.

The obstacles only get tougher when missing-children investigators cross paths with Faye Yager, who is skilled at hiding families and keeping them hidden.

Charles Pickett, a case manager with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, shrugs when asked how many of his cases involved organized underground networks like Yager's.

His group doesn't keep those kinds of records. A missing child is a missing child, regardless of who does the hiding; a federal arrest warrant is all he needs to proceed.

It is Pickett's organization - NCMEC - that is most widely known; its name and hotline number appears on postcards sent to millions of households every week. But the center, which was established by Congress in 1984, doesn't actually investigate cases.

Rather, this Arlington, Va.-based non-profit group, funded with taxpayer dollars, serves as a kind of clearinghouse for many of the more difficult cases. A team of former police and social service agency officials is constantly in touch with federal and local authorities, sharing leads. Its Web page features "age-enhanced" computerized photos of missing children. It is linked online with missing childrens' clearinghouses in 49 states and to authorities overseas.

For all of its work, the NCMEC is still criticized by some women's groups and domestic violence organizations for not distinguishing among different types of abductions - the vast majority that are legitimate, vengeance-motivated "child-snatchings" and the smaller number of more complex cases involving sexual and physical abuse allegations.

The hunters all "use as their criteria . . . a valid custody order," says Rita Smith, director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. A custody order, she claims, is no guarantee of a good parent; she cites studies that conclude that many fathers who get joint or full custody of their children have a history of domestic violence.

Such arguments don't matter to John Rabun, an NCMEC official, who points out that the center is under a Congressional mandate to list all missing children in its computer registry, and to report to police all leads it receives on its national hotline.

"My job," he says simply, "is to find people and get them back to the court of jurisdiction."

Why Would You Want to Take a Baby from Me

On April 23, 1994, Lee Barnett walked out of her home carrying her nearly one-year-old daughter Savanna, telling friends they were on their way to a birthday party.

But they really weren't.

Instead, Barnett disappeared with the hazel-eyed girl into the underground.

And Harris Todd, the child's father and custodial parent, was left behind to pick up the pieces.

Since then, he has spent nearly all his assets in an effort to recover Savanna. Leveraged to the hilt, he lives simply and works seven-day weeks at two jobs: as a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch and as a father engaged in a full-time search for his child.

There are hundreds of people like Todd, mostly fathers, who say they are victims of an underground network that willingly helps mothers and their children go into hiding - in violation of court orders.

Most of these fathers say they have been falsely accused of molesting their children. While the courts believe them, the underground's organizers don't; instead, they take the law into their own hands, leaving fathers cut off from their sons and daughters for years at a time, sometimes forever.

The most public of those underground leaders, Faye Yager, says she will only hide mothers who have extensive documentation of sexual abuse - medical reports, psychological evaluations, police statements.

But no such papers existed in Todd's case. Barnett never made any sexual abuse allegations during the long, nasty court battle for custody of Savanna. She called Harris Todd lots of names, but "child molester" wasn't one of them.

So why, then, did Yager, an Atlanta doctor's wife, help Todd's ex-wife and daughter disappear into the underground?

"Well, that's an exceptional case. I don't think that's typical of my cases," says Yager, frowning.

Could it be, perhaps, that she, or other underground leaders, just made a mistake with Todd?

Yager doesn't answer the question directly.

"Well, we offered him a chance to get his child back and he wouldn't agree to the conditions - which were just to leave this lady be and not try to take her child from her or put her in jail - and he wouldn't agree to that."'

To Yager's critics, Todd's predicament is Exhibit A of the underground's sloppy research and bias against men.

To fathers who are left behind, wondering how to begin to find their children, Todd's story may also be a cautionary tale. Enduring the glare

Benjamin Harris Todd III is, at 45, the very picture of Southern White Anglo-Saxon Protestant propriety: a graduate of Andover and Yale, Todd speaks softly, opens doors for women and can converse on everything from John Barth to Beethoven without missing a beat.

In other words, not the sort of man you would expect to see on "Sally Jesse Raphael."

Yet that's where he was on Jan. 26, 1996, listening to Yager tell the television audience that she helped his ex-wife disappear with their child, because, she said, he was a homosexual (an allegation he vehemently denied). Yager told him to "shut up" when he tried to protest, and then he heard her accuse him of paying detectives to hound his wife while she tried to breastfeed their newborn baby in her hospital room.

Why would he subject himself to such treatment?

He was looking for his child, he says today with a shrug.

"I did what I had to do. I just wish they hadn't made me sit so closely to Faye Yager when she said those things."

It has been a wild ride, this search for Savanna: private detectives, tabloid television shows and profiles in Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine, and two different ADVO card mailings - those little postcards of missing children that show up in 75 million mailboxes each week - each featuring a chubby-cheeked girl with a wide, toothless smile, looking into the camera with pure, undiluted joy.

Although he is by nature a private person, Todd has been doggedly seeking media coverage ever since Savanna vanished, for the same reason so many left-behind fathers do: "because they'll flash a picture of my child on the screen and millions of people will see it, and maybe, one of them will recognize her."

It is a game he has learned to play as best he can, and the rules are always the same.

"The television producer will call up and say, we really want you, be prepared to fly up to New York on such and such a date," Todd recalls.

"And then," he says,"she will call back the day before and say, sorry, something came up, we don't need you. And so, you think, that's it, but then one day you get a call - can you be here in two days. And then they cancel that.

"It's devastating." A bitter melodrama

In the gossipy, sophisticated town of Charleston, Harris Todd has a reputation - as a ladies' man, a great dancer, a gourmet cook.

He claims he is also "still friends with all my ex-girlfriends - except one."

The one who became his wife.

Barnett, a USAir flight attendant, walked into Todd's office at Merrill Lynch in 1987 to seek advice on investing her money.

After a time, they began to see each other socially. Like all his girlfriends, she was vivacious, well-traveled and worldly. Her photographs show a pretty woman with long, silky blond hair, blue eyes, freckles and a strong jaw.

Barnett was, Todd says, also "extremely volatile, prone to dramatic mood swings," so much so that Todd felt ambivalent about their future.

Finally, Barnett presented him with a marriage license and suggested they treat an upcoming Bahamas vacation as a honeymoon. At age 39, Todd assented.

Barnett, of course, is not around to tell her side.

But to hear Todd tell it, the marriage was a spur-of-the-moment decision, made in haste and regretted soon afterwards, when Barnett began to become violent toward him.

He would later testify in court about her behavior: how she wouldn't sleep for seven or eight days at a stretch; how she would beat her head against a wall for what seemed like hours. One night, he awoke to find her lying in a fetal position on the floor, staring at nothing, rocking back and forth.

Or while he was driving their car, she would turn to him during an argument and start pummeling the side of his head.

"I've never hit a woman in my life," Todd says. "And I can't explain why I let myself be hit."

In February 1993, after two years together, they separated and Todd moved out. She claimed desertion; Todd, in filing for divorce the following month, claimed physical cruelty.

By then, Barnett was pregnant with Savanna.

He went into hiding, to escape what he called her endless tirades and threats. Sometimes, he slept in his car.

"I was on the run from her, hiding out at friends' houses. She'd drive around all night, looking for me, and sometimes she'd find me. She'd stand outside the house and scream that she was going to kill herself."


"I don't know," he says.

As the baby's birth date approached, Todd became alarmed about Barnett's ability to care for the child. His entreaties that she seek medical care went unheeded.

"She has, what I was told, a treatable illness" - manic depression. "It could be controlled with drugs," Todd says. When she refused to get treatment, he began custody proceedings.

His case was heard before a judge who had a reputation for making custody decisions under the traditional "tender years doctrine," which presumes that a young child is better off with its mother.

It was a messy trial, full of recriminations and conflicting testimony. His psychiatrists said she was manic-depressive; hers said she was of sound mind. His detectives had gathered extensive evidence of her affairs and drinking with other men - "six in the space of just a few weeks. There was enormous alcoholic consumption when she was supposed to be breastfeeding."

And while the judge, Robert Mallard, normally might favor a mother's custody rights, he also "has a strong belief in marital fidelity. He does not like adulteresses," recalls Barnett's attorney, Mendell Rivers.

But what hurt Barnett most, Rivers says, was her demeanor in the courtroom.

"Lee demonstrated a tragic lack of self-control, and it made the judge believe the things said about her might be true."

Barnett was an excellent mother, Rivers insists, and Savanna was strongly bonded to her. But "she couldn't handle the stress of a trial."

So startling were Barnett's outbursts, Todd says, that the judge ordered that an armed bailiff be present, and the child's court-appointed advocate hired a lawyer to protect herself from Barnett's claims that she was biased.

Two days before the end of the trial, Todd's attorney approached Barnett's attorney with a proposal: joint custody if she would agreed to psychiatric treatment.

It was an action that Yager and other underground organizers later would seize upon as evidence of Todd's bad faith: if his wife was so crazy, why offer her joint custody?

Todd stresses that it was made under the condition that she seek treatment. Also, he had assumed from the beginning that he would never win sole custody under this judge, so his last-ditch proposal "was as good as we could expect."

But Barnett rejected the proposal. She said in court that Todd might be a homosexual and "evil."

A drawing hanging on a wall in Todd's house by an artist friend - of a bearded pianist surrounded by cherubs - had "Satanic" overtones, she told the court.

Finally, after a 12-day trial, it was time for Mallard's decision.

And in a complete departure from his "pro-mother" reputation, the judge ordered that Todd be given sole custody of Savanna. Barnett would be allowed two supervised weekend visits a month, he ruled.

Savanna lived in her father's home for two months, until she was 11 months old - "the most joyous time of my life," Todd says. Then, while on a weekend visit with Barnett, she disappeared.

Without a trace.

"Lee must have had a whole slew of fake documents, ready to go," Todd muses. "She settled into wherever she was going really quick."

That's often the case when families enter organized underground networks, say law enforcement officials. With a web of "safe houses" stretching across this country and overseas, this modern-day underground railroad has thwarted repeated attempts by the FBI and other authorities to shut it down since its emergence ten years ago.

Rivers, too, was dismayed when he learned of Barnett's departure.

"It was a definite power struggle between two extremely determined people. He was determined to make her realize that she wasn't going to have this child, and she was just as determined that he understand she would.

"And in the end, they both won, and they both lost, big time."

A map of South America was left in Barnett's home, almost deliberately placed, it seems, so he could find it - and since Barnett had once lived in Belize, it did not seem improbable that she had headed south of the border.

Todd won't go into details about the detectives' investigations, but does say that he has spent several hundred thousand dollars on the divorce and on the search for his ex-wife and child.

He learned what all left-behind parents discover: that the FBI's bureaucracy can be frustratingly slow.

The bureau's local agent, John Morton, worked hard to help him. Morton, who was not available for an interview, "even went on his own vacation time to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's headquarters in Virginia to meet everybody up there, and ask them about this case," Todd says.

But if Morton "came up with a lead, say, in Houston, he'd have to send that information to another agent in another region instead of pursuing it himself. And they'd get to it when they could, and honestly, they couldn't get to it as fast as I would have liked."

And every sighting since of every woman who resembles Lee Barnett has been of a woman alone - without a child.

"That's very scary," says Todd. A showdown with Faye

A little more than a year into his search, Todd found himself sitting at Faye Yager's kitchen table, an improbable meeting brokered by a writer for Gentleman's Quarterly Magazine who had discovered, on his own, that Yager might know where Todd's child was.

It was an outwardly cordial encounter, although Todd remembers feeling "as though I were standing in the lion's den. And I still feel that if I were a woman sitting there, telling her the same facts, she would have fallen all over the place to help me."

Yager offered to arrange the child's return if Todd would promise to allow Barnett full custody.

Todd wasn't entirely sure that she could negotiate anything.

"You don't negotiate with Lee Barnett. She wouldn't have believed anything. She would have thought it was some kind of a trick."

In fact, Todd was highly doubtful that Yager had anything to do with his wife's disappearance. He speculates she decided to take the heat for it "because, frankly, it gives her more exposure."

He declined her offer, and that was that - until one day in December of that year, when Todd found himself sitting at close quarters with Yager again.

This time, it was in front of millions of people.

There he was, looking somber in a brown Shetland sweater, in a little plywood studio in New York City, with Pete Connell and Farriel Britt, two other "left-behind fathers," staring at "all these people out in the audience, like fish in a bowl."

And a woman with large red glasses and a heavy, halting voice spoke into a microphone and asked him to explain how it felt to have his heart broken.

Todd told Sally Jesse Raphael that "losing a child is the most horrible thing that can happen to a human being." While pictures of Lee Barnett and Savanna flashed on the screen, Todd talked about his ex-wife's violent behavior; how she nearly killed their Great Dane puppy for not coming to her when she called; how one night, he awoke to find her straddling him, as if she were about to choke him.

Cut to a commercial break.

Another chair was brought out, and with it came Faye Yager, in a lipstick red suit with black trim, and almost immediately she began to tell the audience her own story.

It's a story she's told many times, and always to great effect - about discovering, 25 years ago, that her first husband, Roger Jones, had molested their 2-year-old daughter; how she hadn't been believed by the courts; how Jones' family got custody and he got to sexually abuse the child until she was in her teens; how, today, Jones is serving a 30-year jail sentence for molesting other children.

The audience broke into applause at that last piece of information. And then it was time to allow the fathers a chance to ask Yager about their children. It was not pretty. Yager and Pete Connell sparred over what she claimed was evidence he had abused his child.

Yager seemed to have the upper hand, until Todd finally turned and asked her, in a soft, plaintive voice, "why, WHY would you want to take a baby from ME? I have never been accused of anything (but) being a good father."

Yager's face began to twitch.

"You say (your ex-wife) is crazy," Yager said, her mascara-rimmed eyes going tiny in her paper-white face, like two burning holes of fire. "You say you woke up in the middle of the night and she's on top of you. You didn't tell her you were homosexual."

There was a collective gasp from the audience as Todd, stunned, began to protest.

"If I woke up in the morning and found out that I was married to a homosexual and intended to carry on my life I'd go a little crazy too," she continued over the audience's jeers.

Sally Jesse Raphael broke in sternly, warning Yager that Todd's sexual orientation was "immaterial" to the question of whether he was a good father.

"That's correct," said Yager, momentarily subdued. "Nobody's accused you of sexual abuse, or of not being a good father." But Todd had tied Barnett up in the courts, she went on, so he could take a baby from a breastfeeding mother. And when Yager offered to help Todd recover his child - as long as Barnett was allowed full custody with ample child support - he refused, she told the audience triumphantly.

"Instead of teddy bears and roses when the baby was born, (Lee Barnett) had five private eyes outside her hospital room watchin' her while she breastfed it!"

It was a long way from Yager's kitchen table. Todd's refuge

Todd's house is a one-story wood-shingled property on an island in the beautiful low country marshes that surround Charleston.

On good days, the wind freshens off the ocean, blowing the mosquitoes away; on bad days, like this one, it is stifling and sulfurous - a distinctive scent from the black, gooey "pluff mud" of the marshes.

No matter. To Todd, it is heaven on earth, the place where he hopes to live out his days. Using his skills as a carpenter and amateur architect, he has extensively remodeled it. The house is full of light and antiques and books, and when the baby was born, he built a screened-in porch so she could play safely there.

Yet, today, it feels very much like a bachelor's house - except for one room, down a hall behind a closed door.

It was Savanna's room, the nursery where she slept for the two months she lived with him.

"I have to keep the door closed," Todd says. "Or else I just can't bear it."

Inside, the walls are pale pink, and an antique crib stands in the corner that had belonged to his brother's children, with teethmarks still visible on it. Most of Savanna's clothes have been given away.

"She couldn't use them now. She's 4 1/2 , after all."

He walks out of the room, down the hall, and out the front door, as if he needed room to breathe.

"If I didn't have this place I don't know if I would be able to stand it," he says, looking out over his nine acres, peaceful in the humid October afternoon, except for the incessant whine of crickets.

Just the day before, Todd's family - his brother and sister and their sons and daughters and cousins - had come there for a birthday party. There were gangs of children, and laughter and games.

"And I just thought to myself, why on earth would you want to take a child away from this, away from cousins and aunts and uncles, a family, and a life where you knew where you came from and where you belonged?"

He wonders, then walks back into the empty house.

The Cost of Living on the Run: No Home, No Friends, Just Fear

Sally is in anguish. She is sitting in a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant watching her two little girls devour an enormous ice cream sundae while a thunderstorm shudders and howls outside.    

Sally is trying hard to control her face, trying hard not to communicate any panic as she asks 5-year-old Katie and 7-year-old Tina this question, ever so slowly and gently:

"How would you feel about going back to live with your Daddy?"   

In an instant, the ice cream is forgotten and two pairs of hazel brown eyes are fixed on hers like twin laser beams.

It's that question again.    

It's the same question their mother has been asking on and off over the past few weeks, the same question that makes Tina go quiet and Katie fold into a fetal position before Sally retracts it, and says "never mind."   

But this time, Sally persists.    

"Would you rather keep running, or go back?"   

``Keep runnin','' Katie whispers, doubling over, her head down on the seat.    

"We might not have any choice, though. We might have to go back, and I might not see you for awhile."   

"I don't like him,'' says Tina.    


"Because you don't. He makes you cry."   

"But that doesn't mean you shouldn't like him, just `cause he and I don't get along. Maybe we need to go back and you should try to get to know him again."   

There is no answer.    

A waitress comes to the table, all sunshine and cheerfulness. She sees the children lying on their sides in the booth, Katie's head in her mother's lap.    

"Oooh, I bet all that ice cream has made some little girls get a tummy ache," she chirps.

It wasn't that.       

Two years of hiding    

For the past two years, Sally has been living "underground" with her two daughters, except that her real name isn't Sally, it's Rita Mazzie. Katie's real name is Ashley. Tina's real name is Sarah. Their new names they invented as part of their disguise while on the run.    

Mazzie is a petite woman, with a sharp chin and wide green eyes that look perpetually startled. Her hair is cut short, and she recently changed it from light brown to jet black on the instructions of Faye Yager, an Atlanta woman who runs an organized underground network dedicated to hiding mothers and children when courts don't believe their claims that the fathers have been abusive.    

Mazzie's journey into hiding began long before she met Yager, who runs the most public of these organized "undergrounds," with the help of volunteers around the world who provide safe houses, false identities and decoy leads to throw police off the trail.    

Mazzie first fled with her children from her home in Elizabeth, south of Pittsburgh, on Nov. 28, 1995, and entered the Women' Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. She told officials at the center that her husband, John Mazzie, threw a wooden board that hit her head.    

It happened just days after Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence Kaplan had dismissed her petition to suspend John Mazzie's visitation rights with the children.   

Kaplan's order followed an investigation by the county's Department of Children and Youth Services of allegations by Rita Mazzie that her husband had sexually abused their younger daughter. CYS concluded that her allegations were "unfounded."   

John Mazzie, through his attorney, George Miller, declined to comment for this article, but in official documents, he has denied any wrongdoing.    

The Mazzies, who had been living apart for a year, were told to enter mediation to resolve their conflict, but before they could do so, Rita Mazzie says, her husband threw the board. That's when she ran.    

The women's shelter in Oakland is located in an anonymous building, with no markings or signs. That's the way it's supposed to be - to protect the women who go there.    

But someone, somehow, found out where Rita Mazzie was, and telephoned the shelter asking for her. That alarmed shelter officials, who told her they believed she might be in danger and it would be best if she left the area. That night, they put Mazzie and her daughters on a midnight bus to a shelter in Alabama.    

The girls, sleepy and confused, asked their mother where they were going.    `

"To a safe place," she said.    

"I was underground, I guess, before I knew I was underground."   

When they arrived in Alabama on a cold November morning, they were met by a shelter official, who provided them with a room to live in, and arranged for therapy for all three of them.    

It was a difficult but ultimately fruitful experience for Mazzie, who had never sought any kind of professional or legal help for her troubles. Suddenly, she was in a place "where it was OK to talk about what we had been through."   

In May, Mazzie decided to leave Alabama and move in with her sister, who lived in Florida.    

It would be one of the happiest times during her two years on the run. Her children were enrolled in school, and she got a job as a waitress.    

"I felt safe, because the apartment's landlord was the local sheriff," Mazzie says, smiling slightly at the memory. He lived right across the street, "and he never asked me for any identification."   

Two weeks after school started, a teacher told her that Ashley needed further counseling, and recommended therapy at a local non-profit children's foundation. Ashley went and began to make progress. The child, who had been withdrawn and depressed, began to come out of her shell.    

Ensconced in her new life, Mazzie was happy. She liked working in the restaurant. Her children were happy, too, Mazzie says.    

Sometimes, however, she would realize with a start that her husband might be trying to find her and the children. Then she would put it out of her mind.    

Mazzie knew that she was probably in violation of some law, although she wasn't sure what law she was breaking.   

One warm spring night last May, the telephone in the kitchen rang.    

It was a friend from Tampa.    

The FBI had visited Rita Mazzie's mother, the friend told her. They were looking for her. They had a warrant for her arrest on federal charges of flight to avoid prosecution.

Mazzie remembers that moment as clearly as anything in her life. Everything after that was a blur.    

Standing in the middle of her sister's kitchen, she felt paralyzed, unable to think, except for one thing: She was a fugitive, and the FBI was after her. She could be caught, and her children taken from her, and she could be put in jail.    

She started walking around in circles, frantic.    

Then, she called another friend elsewhere in Florida.    

"This woman had been through the same thing. She had hidden her child when she feared her spouse was molesting the boy. She had used Faye Yager."   

It was the first time Mazzie had ever heard the name of the woman who runs the best-known underground network in America.        

A disastrous encounter    

Faye Yager likes to say that the mothers and occasional fathers who go into her network are "runnin' material."  

That usually means a strong-minded person who believes that what she is doing is the only alternative; who is well-organized; someone with the resources to survive a new life underground and stay put. Anyone who is weak-willed or dependent may not last more than a week, and if she is caught, she not only will worsen her own position in court, but may put the people who helped her at risk.    

So perhaps it was inevitable that Mazzie and Yager wouldn't hit it off.    

"She sat there and was going through all my papers, and I didn't have everything there, and then, she leaned into the table and said to me, `If you do this, and you get caught, you will never see your children again.' "    

"She was very hard," Mazzie remembers.    

It was Yager's stock speech, the one she tells all the women she meets. It's like boot camp; designed to weed out the the weak from the strong.    

Mazzie's reaction was to burst into tears.    

Yager then "scooted her chair back and said to me, `I'm NOT goin' to be your babysitter if you're goin' to be like that. If you're not goin' to behave like a grownup then I'm going to walk right out of here. And I will have nothin' more to say to you.' "    

It was Yager at her harshest.    `

"I have to be tough with these people. I have to tell them the truth about what they're doin'. This ain't Disney World," Yager would say later.    

Yager told Mazzie's friend to take her back home, and said she would call in a week with further instructions.    

Two weeks went by with no word from Yager.    

And then, a family friend called again, and told her that John Mazzie had been given temporary custody of the children. Rita Mazzie, in a panic, tried again to reach Yager.

They spoke one more time, and Yager "told me to hang in there, she was workin' on it."

Without waiting to hear any further from Yager, Mazzie and the children traveled to Huntsville, Ala., where another friend had offered her a place to stay while she figured out what to do.    

But the heat was on.    

The FBI agent assigned to Mazzie's case had visited her sister in Florida almost daily, she was told. Mazzie's therapist also got a visit, and was told her telephone had been tapped.

And in addition to federal charges, there were state charges for interfering with custody arrangements, filed against her in Pennsylvania.        

Marooned in Huntsville    

Huntsville , in north Alabama, is a booming community, where yuppies co-exist somewhat uneasily with poorer families. "Cappuccino and Christ" says the sign outside one local church, near a plush neighborhood full of renovated Victorian houses. Down the highway is a seamier part of town, where "Larry's Pistol and Pawn" competes for business with "Earl's Mowers & Chain Saws."   

That's the neighborhood where Mazzie and her children are holed up, living in an apartment her friend provided them, a single room above a garage. Mazzie has no money, and relies on her friend's hospitality for food. Her surroundings are clean but plain, and there is no air conditioning. Garbage bags cover the windows, as makeshift curtains.

Despite the 90 degree-plus temperatures, despite the lack of toys or Nickelodeon, Ashley and Sarah - now being called Katie and Tina - are playing quietly and contentedly, using boxes and blankets as a "school."   

They know something is wrong; their mother spends her days making anxious telephone calls, or waiting for the phone to ring. She has cut and dyed their hair; and they are far from the place in Florida they had grown to love.    

Despite her efforts to conceal her worry, "they keep asking me if I'm all right," Mazzie says.    

And as it becomes clearer that the FBI agent is moving closer, Mazzie is thinking seriously about giving up.    

"I just can't bear much more of this," she says, "knowing that they're out there, calling up my family and visiting them every day and tapping their phones."   

So, very reluctantly, she has begun to give up on the idea of going into Yager's underground.    

Slowly, she has been trying to move a little bit away from Ashley and Sarah, trying to get herself and them used to the idea that soon, they will be apart. She does this by talking about it, by talking about them going back to live with their father.    

It is not working.    

"The more I distance myself from them, the closer they try to get to me," she says.    

One night, after a frantic phone call from a sister, she had a friend drive her to one of Huntsville's shopping malls. It was just before closing.    

"What are you doing, momma?" asked Ashley.    

"I'm calling your father," Mazzie told her daughter. She would ask him to call off the FBI, tell him that she was coming back.    

Immediately, Ashley began to crouch on the sidewalk, her head down. Mazzie dialed the number, and got John Mazzie's answering machine.    

She didn't leave a message. She hung up.    

Then she called a lawyer in Pittsburgh.        


On Aug. 26, Rita Mazzie voluntarily appeared at a court in Pittsburgh with her two children.    

The FBI dropped its charges. State charges are still pending, but a judge agreed to permit the children to remain with Rita Mazzie.    

The father will be allowed to visit them. The family has entered counseling to help the children establish a relationship with him.    

Their journey into the underground is over but another, perhaps more difficult, journey is just beginning.

These Children Can't Take it Any Longer

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."

Women's Shelters Arm of 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."