A thick summer haze blanketed Washington, D.C., on that day almost two years ago when little Hilary went into hiding—a day that would change Elizabeth Morgan's life. As a friend drove them toward Warrenton, Va., Morgan studied her 5-year-old daughter's sad brown eyes, brushed back the little girl's auburn hair and talked softly of the escape. At an obscure country diner, they met Elizabeth's 77-year-old father, William Morgan, and proceeded with their plan. Elizabeth would leave the tormented child with her grandparents, who would spirit her to safety until the courts believed Hilary's claims that her lather, Eric Foretich, was raping her.

It was a final desperate act by Morgan, now 41, a well-known plastic surgeon who had failed to persuade the courts to end her ex-husband's unsupervised visits with Hilary. Foretich, 46, a prosperous oral surgeon, had adamantly denied all allegations of sexual abuse and had produced an array of witnesses in his own behalf.

Predictably, court hearings on the matter had quickly turned into a caustic sea of charges, countercharges and contradictory testimony. Countering compelling evidence presented by Morgan, a prominent physician retained by Foretich said that Hilary's enlarged hymen and fibrous scarring of her hymenal ring could have been self-inflicted or caused by "riding a bicycle or straddling chairs.' A psychiatrist testified that Morgan had a "mixed personality disorder" and misinterpreted statements by Hilary as allegations of abuse. An attorney appointed to represent the girl, while recommending only supervised visits with the father, cited a positive father-daughter relationship. And Foretich twice had submitted I to, and passed, lie detector tests. District] Court Judge Herbert Dixon concluded that the evidence of Hilary's sexual abuse was "in equipoise," a legal term meaning 50 percent probable but not proved, and in August 1987 he ordered that Hilary begin a two-week unsupervised visit with her father.

And so, on that hazy summer day, Morgan had dressed Hilary in a T-shirt and shorts and whisked her away. Grasping her daughter's small hand as they walked to the edge of the diner parking lot, she recognized the enormity of her decision. "Elizabeth held Hilary in her arms and then sat her down on a car trunk," recalls the friend who drove them to the rendezvous. "They were face to face, talking quietly and saying goodbye. When they parted, Elizabeth was crying. She believed it would be a long, long time before they saw each other again." And so it has been. For defying his order, Judge Dixon found Morgan in contempt and sent her to the District of Columbia jail. Though she has been convicted of no crime and her case has never been heard by a jury, she has remained behind bars for the past 22 months.

In the view of many, it is the judicial process itself that is most at fault in Morgan's case, and it is truth that has been the casualty. Hilary's graphic descriptions of oral, anal and vaginal sex with her father were discounted, despite supporting medical testimony from Morgan's witnesses. Vital testimony concerning her older half-sister, who has also accused Foretich of rape, was disallowed as potentially prejudicial—even though the matter was not being heard by a jury but by the very judge who made the ruling. Now an extensive investigation by PEOPLE has uncovered new evidence that social services and police officials badly mishandled the case and that at least one important witness, a police investigator, was blocked from testifying. The investigation suggests that Morgan's detention is a travesty of justice, the result of an inept, unresponsive legal system that has unwittingly punished those it is most obligated to protect. It is Hilary herself, banished to a fugitive life and deprived of parental love, who is the ultimate victim of a nightmare whose end, and beginning, now seem a lifetime away.

It was early summer in 1981 when Eric Foretich's second wife, Sharon, saw Dr. Elizabeth Morgan on the Donahue show discussing her new book, The Making of a Woman Surgeon. Foretich had dental patients in need of plastic surgery, and Sharon suggested her husband contact Morgan about referring some of them to her. Some weeks later, Foretich met Morgan in the recovery room at Fairfax Hospital and set up a business lunch near their McLean, Va., offices.

But medical matters were not on Foretich's mind that September afternoon; instead, he recounted a heartrending story about his life's travails. After describing an idyllic childhood of fishing and sandlot baseball in Newport News, Va., Foretich spoke of his bereavement at 16 when Doris Paula, his 1-month-old baby sister, died after a blood transfusion. Soon afterward, Foretich told Morgan, he decided to attend the nearby College of William and Mary, where he met Sue Arrington, the schoolteacher he married in 1965. But more personal losses were to come, and three years later Foretich's younger brother, Vincent Jr., 21, was killed in a car accident.

Before long there were marital woes as well. In 1969, while Foretich was serving his internship and residency in New York, Sue filed for divorce on grounds of desertion. He returned to Virginia in 1972, set up a thriving. $175,000-a-year practice and seemed consumed by his work until 1977, when, after a one-year courtship, he married a stunning 20-year-old model. In 1980 Foretich and his new wife, Sharon (at her request, her last name has been withheld), had a daughter, Heather. But the marriage was foundering, and by the time Foretich and Morgan met for lunch that day, he was facing the prospect of his second divorce.

Morgan was deeply touched by his story. The daughter of two psychologists, she had grown up in an affluent Virginia suburb of Washington and had excelled from the start. She skipped kindergarten and third grade, graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class and entered Harvard at 16: After finishing Yale Medical School in 1971 and completing a seven-year residency, she quickly established herself as one of Washington's preeminent plastic surgeons. But after years of attention to school and studies, she was looking for romance, and Foretich seemed to offer it.

Their relationship moved swiftly—there were walks in the park, elegant dinners, evenings at the ballet—and by December 1981 Morgan was not only madly in love but pregnant. One month later the couple flew to Haiti, where Foretich tiled for divorce from Sharon—a divorce later found to be invalid—and married his new love.

If Morgan had rashly embarked on marriage, she just as quickly began having second thoughts. Within weeks after she and her aging, divorced mother, Antonia, moved into a rented Great Falls, Va., home with Foretich, her troubles began. Foretich was enraged, she says, when the two women occasionally withdrew behind locked doors to share confidences. She says he threw tantrums at the slightest provocation, accused her of ruining his life and eventually grew violent. After reading a newspaper item about his marriage to Morgan, "Eric knocked me down and kicked me because he had not yet told Sharon of the Haitian divorce," says Morgan. "It seems hard to believe now, but I stayed. I felt owed my child a mother and father, some kind of balanced life."

Yet, even as Morgan was vowing to carry on, Sharon would later say in a court deposition that Foretich was calling her daily, professing his love and questioning whether the child Morgan was carrying was his. And as her pregnancy advanced, says Morgan, Foretich "was screaming at me night and day. He kept saying, 'The baby's going to die,' and told me how miserable he was. Nothing could make him happy."

Although Foretich denies Morgan's charges about the beating and his behavior, Sharon says he made the same morbid predictions. when she became pregnant for the first time. He "was continually telling me that the baby was going to die," she told the court. "Every night I'd come home and Eric would say, 'The baby's going to die, so I wouldn't get excited about the shower if I were you.' " Tragically, his prophecy came true; Sharon and Foretich's first child, Christopher, was stillborn in July 1978.

And Eric seemed to hold Sharon to blame. He was constantly angry and critical, she told the court, and during an anniversary dinner one night he repeatedly smashed champagne glasses on a restaurant table in his fury. When Sharon was hospitalized for a kidney infection during her second pregnancy, Foretich went to Europe on vacation with his parents. And when she gave birth to Heather in June 1980, Foretich was so enraged at not having a son, she testified, that he threw a violent fit in the delivery room and was forced to leave. Days later, when Heather developed severe jaundice, Sharon remembers him saying, "Heather's going to die, just like [his sister] Paula, I know it." The following year, after Foretich repeatedly threatened to kill both her and himself, she said in court, she left him for good.

One week before Hilary's birth, Morgan decided that she had to go too, and after grabbing several plastic trash bags from under the bathroom sink, she hastily packed her things and left. Later, however, when she went into false labor, Morgan says she reluctantly telephoned Foretich to tell him that their baby, which tests had determined was a girl, was due any moment. "She'd be better off dead," she says Foretich told her.

Morgan barred Foretich from being present at Hilary's delivery but saw him the next day in her hospital room. Clutching a bouquet of pink roses, he sat on the bed and pleaded for a reconciliation. "He said, 'I'm the unhappiest man in the world,' and looked like he was going to a funeral," Morgan recalls. "He didn't look at Hilary. I remember thinking, 'He kept wanting a boy.' "

As soon as she was out of the hospital, Morgan, her mother and Hilary settled into Morgan's former Washington town house. After she obtained a Haitian divorce in November 1982, the first arguments over custody and visitation began. Foretich, who was visiting the infant several days a week at the home of her babysitter, petitioned the D.C. superior court for the right to overnight visits. After they began in June 1983, Hilary would return home screaming and crying "with a scared look, as though I had betrayed her," Morgan later testified. The child became increasingly fearful of the visits, she said, and at 13 months started suffering paralytic seizures.

By then, she had learned from Sharon that Heather, then 3, was showing unusual symptoms after her weekends with Foretich. Heather threw tantrums, complained that her "bottom hurt" and spoke vividly of bathing with her father and playing with his "boy thing," Sharon later disclosed in court papers. At first, neither Elizabeth nor Sharon could believe that Foretich could be molesting his daughters. Then in January 1985, after helping Hilary put on her snow boots one cold morning, Morgan was shocked, she says, when the 2½-year-old began describing acts of oral sex with her father. Soon she was mimicking them as well: Hilary would "open her mouth and stick out her tongue" when she was kissed goodnight, and at a toy store she once "picked up a banana and rubbed it between her legs, making panting sounds," says Morgan. "I thought, 'My baby! I can't stand it!' "

Horrified, Morgan made an appointment with Dr. Joseph Noshpitz, a child psychiatrist affiliated with Children's Hospital in Washington. Noshpitz reported Morgan's suspicions of abuse to the Department of Social Services in Fairfax County. By Feb. 15, 1985, social worker Daisy Morrison-Gilstrap had interviewed Hilary and concluded I hat while she was "too young to verbalize what happened," her playacting with anatomical dolls suggested that she had indeed "been sexually abused. By whom I don't know." The report so outraged Foretich's father, Vincent, a retired shipyard engineer, that he proposed that Morrison-Gilstrap interview Heather, then nearly 5, as a way of absolving his son. Morrison-Gilstrap's findings were reviewed by a county social services panel that concluded the abuse charges were "founded" in Heather's case and that there was "reason to suspect" in Hilary's. Fairfax County police never pressed charges against Foretich and concluded that he did not abuse either daughter, despite social service suspicions.

Sharon, whose divorce from Foretich became final in May 1984, succeeded in having his visitation rights curbed after Dr. Elizabeth Finch, an Alexandria psychiatrist—retained at Foretich's request—also concluded that Heather had been abused. According to a sworn affidavit from Finch, Heather stated that "she did not wish to see her father because 'he stuck his man thing in my girl thing' and that 'he had hurt me down there.' " Foretich has been prevented from seeing his older daughter for three years pending a recommendation to the contrary by her therapist. So far, four such therapists have urged against resuming the visits, and Foretich continues to file petitions.

Hilary's case was more difficult because she was considered too young to be a credible witness. In desperation, Morgan, in April 1985, photographed the 32-month-old child masturbating and inserting crayons between her legs, then had the prints mailed to Morrison-Gilstrap. "I had to show I wasn't simply inventing these horrible incidents," Morgan says. "It was done as a last resort to protect Hilary." It was also an error she would come to regret. Morrison-Gilstrap left her job soon afterward, and the prints, discovered by a replacement unfamiliar with the Morgan case, were sent to the D.C. police, who launched a pornography investigation of Morgan. Though the police eventually dropped the case, Foretich's lawyers later claimed the photographs proved that Hilary's injuries were self-inflicted. Morgan believes Judge Dixon may have been swayed by the ongoing pornography investigation when, in July 1986, he found evidence of abuse "inconclusive" and granted Foretich unsupervised visits.

Apparently at an impasse in Dixon's court, Morgan filed a civil suit the following month, charging Foretich with sexual abuse. Sharon also filed a deposition claiming abuse of Heather and stating that her daughter had told her she saw "Daddy hurting Hilary" the same way. Dr. Charles Shubin, director of pediatric care at Baltimore's Mercy Hospital, found vaginal scarring in both girls—whom he examined without knowing they were half-sisters—but was only allowed to testify that Hilary was injured. Like Dixon before him, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Williams excluded Hilary's allegations as well as all testimony about Heather on the grounds that the information might be prejudicial. Again, the court found that Morgan hadn't proved the abuse charge.

When Hilary's unsupervised visits to her father resumed in the spring of 1987, the child's behavior deteriorated dramatically, says Morgan. The little girl was plagued by nightmares, wet her bed and assaulted classmates at preschool. Within a few weeks, in sessions with Dr. Mary Froning, a veteran clinical psychologist who had been seeing Hilary since January 1986, the child talked constantly of committing suicide. Dr. Froning spent a total of 87 hours with the child and describes Hilary's as "one of the clearest cases of sex abuse that I've ever seen. There are 17 behavioral indicators consistent with sexual abuse," says Froning. "She met all 17...and was on the verge of psychological destruction."

In despair, both Froning and Morgan urged Fairfax County Social Services officials to reopen their investigation but never received a response. The department was a "disaster," according to one top county official, and incapable of handling its massive caseload. Without notifying Morgan, Virginia Social Services Commissioner William L. Lukhard, who had been reviewing the material on Hilary and Heather in response to an appeal from Foretich's attorney, ordered the destruction of all files concerning the two girls.

Morgan's pleas for police help were equally futile. In June 1987. after returning from an overnight visit with Foretich, Hilary was examined at Georgetown Hospital by pediatrician Dr. Francis Palumbo, who found a vaginal inflammation "and whitish discharge" and notified D.C. police. Detective Sam Williams, a 20-year veteran who had investigated hundreds of sex abuse cases, talked with Hilary at Georgetown for nearly two hours and came away convinced Foretich had abused her. "She seemed like a very intelligent girl," he says. "She was insistent, saying her father touched her in private areas [and that] it happened at his house during the night." Williams returned to file his report and was stunned when he was ordered to hand it over to detectives who were still attempting to build a case for Morgan's arrest on pornography charges. He was further appalled the following week when Judge Dixon barred his testimony at the visitation and custody hearing on the grounds that it was part of an ongoing pornography investigation that could not be divulged in court. Williams asked in disgust to be transferred out of the sex squad, and he retired from the department last year. "It's a travesty that Dr. Morgan is in jail," says Williams, 47, who has spoken up at the urging of his wife, Nora. "I see pictures of her and say, 'Damn! Why can't something be done?' "

Witnessing Hilary's torment, Morgan was asking herself the same question. Judge Dixon had recently heard damning testimony from Dr. William Zuckerman, a Virginia psychologist hired by Foretich to evaluate him in 1986, who later told the court that Foretich had "difficulties with boundaries," confusing his mother, wives and perhaps his daughters as objects of his sexual needs. Zuckerman's report had stated that Foretich's aggressive impulses "are not always within his control...and that his sexual actions may not be either."

At about the same time, Froning had called in another specialist in multiple personality syndrome, who concluded Hilary was starting to develop just such a problem. Shortly before Dixon ordered the two-week unsupervised visit with Foretich, Morgan and Froning began discussing the possibility of sending Hilary underground. "There were nothing but bad choices," says Froning. "One was [for Hilary] to stay and continue to be abused by her father; the other was safety. There wasn't a choice for a normal life."

Today, William Morgan's two-story home outside Washington is choked with weeds, its interior covered in dust. Now 79, he has been hiding out with Hilary for nearly two years, struggling to cope with a tragedy that has reunited him with his former wife, Antonia, 74. Their whereabouts are unknown, but Morgan does not keep his outrage in hiding. He regularly fires off letters to congressmen and Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles decrying the "corruption and obstruction of justice" that have cost his family so dearly.

Upstairs in Eric Foretich's Great Falls mansion is a room decorated for a little princess, but the pink-and-rose frilled canopy beds are unrumpled, the toys untouched. Foretich's life revolves around his search for Hilary, his practice and his prayers. A former Catholic who became a born-again Christian last year, Foretich's religion has not tempered his anger at Elizabeth Morgan. Calling her a "Joan of Arc figure hungry for the spotlight," Foretich insisted she is the "abuser" and that her charges are "the most heinous, vile accusation you can make. I never even thought of touching my child. All I care about is getting her back." To do that he has suggested that if Hilary is found she be placed in a foster home, with both parents permitted only supervised visits until a thorough evaluation is made. "If the psychiatrist finds it would be in Hilary's best interest that I give up visitation, I would do so," he has said, "although it would be extremely painful to me."

While he continues battling for his rights as a father, he has encountered further problems in his role as a husband. He is separated from his fourth wife, Patricia Kentz, 35, a Fairfax, Va., dentist whom he married in 1986.

Elizabeth Morgan considers Kentz lucky; as inmate No. 223390 in the District of Columbia jail's South 1 Block, Morgan remains confined in a sunless 6-by 11-foot cell. Her teeth have loosened because of poor diet and lack of sunlight, her skin is wan, and she suffers from chronic exhaustion. "The lights go on and off, people are screaming, and you simply never have a night's sleep," she says. On infrequent trips to court, she is shackled and handcuffed like the murderers and thieves with whom she now lives. Although Morgan refuses to comment on whether she has had any direct communication with her daughter, she does say the child is "healthy, happy and healing."

The only welcome breaks in Morgan's prison routine are her weekly meetings with Paul Michel, 48, a federal appeals court judge to whom she became engaged shortly after they were reintroduced at a party in 1986. Michel, a divorced father of two, had first met Morgan five years earlier when she performed surgery on his 11-year-old daughter. He is pained to see his fiancée savaged by a legal system to which he has devoted much of his life, and he is haunted by the fact that he twice drove Hilary to Foretich's home himself because Morgan could not bear to see the child cry. "There is nothing I regret more than those two acts," he says now.

Although a D.C. appeals court has recently instructed Judge Dixon to review the question of whether Morgan's constitutional rights are being violated by her prolonged civil contempt jailing, he seems unlikely to rescind the order that has kept her behind bars. Reaffirming his own decision last December, he insisted that Morgan "holds the keys to her freedom," and warned ominously that "the coercion has just begun." Taking a more compassionate view, Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf recently introduced a bill that would limit incarceration for civil contempt in custody cases to 18 months. Even if that comes to pass, Morgan knows it will be too little, too late to repair the damage to her and her daughter. "Whenever I feel sorry for myself, I remind myself we're not on this earth to have a good time," she says. "Nobody has got a contract to be happy." Nor any reason, surely, to have been visited with as much undeserved misery as the absent Hilary Foretich.

—Paula Chin, Jane Sims Podesta and Linda Kramer in Washington