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Releasing the Rage

updated 09/18/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/18/2000 01:00AM

I've got everything I ever dreamed about giving Ellen," says Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, standing in the kitchen of her Washington, D.C., townhouse. "We're back here in the same house. I've got my career back. Ellen has her future ahead." The 53-year-old plastic surgeon pours a cup of coffee. "As a surgeon, I've seen people make remarkable recoveries, and that is what has happened to Ellen," she says softly. "She has not been defeated by her own history."

At that moment Ellen, 18, clad in black capri pants, her reddish-brown hair cropped punkishly short, bursts into the kitchen. "I don't need you to speak for me! I can speak for myself!" she snaps. "This [article] is not about me and my mother. It's about me!" For a moment the two women's eyes lock, the mother's look of hard-won serenity wilting in the heat of her daughter's defiance. Looking away, Elizabeth sets her cup on the counter, smiles sheepishly, then drifts upstairs.

Some days it must seem as if the fallout will never end. In 1986 Elizabeth filed a civil suit charging her estranged husband, Eric Foretich, a prosperous oral surgeon, with sexually abusing their daughter, then 4. The following summer a D.C. superior court judge ruled that she had failed to prove her allegation and ordered her to deliver the girl to Foretich for an unsupervised visit. Instead, she furtively sent the little girl off with her parents, an act of civil contempt that landed Elizabeth in a D.C. jail. Over the next 25 months, while she cooled her heels in a 6-by-11-ft. cell, the child named Hilary Foretich, whose birthright suggested a bright future, became Ellen Morgan, a frightened fugitive whose parents' ugly custody battle made headlines around the world as she was shuttled from the Bahamas to England and then to New Zealand.

For the past 13 years, as her parents have publicly traded verbal jabs and angry denials, the one voice that has remained unheard is Ellen's. "I had all this anger and rage that I didn't know what to do with," she says. So in ninth grade, she dropped out of private school in New Zealand and moved in with a boyfriend. She says she used drugs, tried to commit suicide "numerous" times and slashed her arms with scissors. "I was so angry with people, and I wanted to punish them," she says. "I didn't know how to take it out on other people, so I took it out on myself."

After years of therapy she has found her tongue–and her rage flies in every direction. "Every single adult in my life let me down," she says. "I'm angry at all the people who were supposed to be protecting me and didn't while I was living in hell." Though the court found that there was insufficient evidence of abuse, one court-appointed psychiatrist concluded: "For [Ellen], the belief that she was abused is reality, whether [or not] her belief has any basis in fact."

To hear Elizabeth tell it, Foretich, whom she divorced when Ellen was four months old, began sexually abusing the child before her second birthday. Foretich, 54, vehemently denies the accusations leveled by Elizabeth, his third wife. "I would never hurt a child, and [Elizabeth] knows this," says Foretich, who lives with his fifth wife, Mary, and their two young boys in northern Virginia. "I have always loved and protected children. It's as if she deliberately accused me of the one thing I would never do."

In 1987, ordered to surrender Ellen to Foretich for a two-week visit, Elizabeth took the law into her own hands. Ellen still remembers sitting in a diner in northern Virginia, listening as her mother explained that they might not be together again for a "very long time." Says Ellen: "I was only 5. I couldn't comprehend what this meant."

What it meant was life on the lam with her maternal grandparents, Toni and William, who eventually settled in Christchurch, a remote town in New Zealand where sheep outnumber people. "It was just a complete cultural change," Ellen says. Enrolled in a buttoned-up private girls' school, she made few friends and felt pursued by the media. "The most important thing to me," she says, "was that my mother wasn't there."

In September 1989, after serving the longest prison term on record for civil contempt of court, Elizabeth was finally freed by a law passed by Congress on her behalf, which limits such terms in D.C. to one year. Soon afterward Ellen was summoned to a psychiatrist's office in New Zealand, where she met a slim, dark-haired woman. "I was terrified," she says. "I had no idea who this woman was." When she noticed the Barbie doll in Elizabeth's hands, she thought, "That's weird." And then? "Of course when I realized who she was, I was very excited."

And cautious. "Now I had to make room for her in my life," Ellen says. "Sometimes I didn't want her around, and sometimes I was so superattached I couldn't let her out of my sight." When Elizabeth tried to establish boundaries, Ellen balked, particularly as she hit adolescence. "I did drugs, I partied, I had fun," she says. "My mother knew there was nothing she could do." During this time money was tight, since Elizabeth was unable to practice surgery in New Zealand. Instead she acquired a Ph.D. in trauma psychology, while the family got by on her parents' savings and on contributions from Paul Michel, a D.C. judge whom Morgan married in 1989 and later divorced.

Another act of Congress enabled Ellen and her mother to return to the U.S. in 1997. Since then Ellen has completed a drug-rehab program, graduated from high school and enrolled at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y.–only to quit two days later. She now attends classes at American University, just two blocks from home. "There's a discipline problem in the household," says her cousin Erica Morgan. "Elizabeth tries to make it up to her for all the things that were done to her when she was young."

On Aug. 21 Ellen turned 18. As a declaration of independence, she got herself a nose ring. The next day, for the first time in 13 years, she faced her father in federal court. Having come of age, she was there to claim the $200,000 civil settlement she had been awarded in 1992 in a privacy-invasion suit brought against Lifetime Cable Network for a documentary the network produced on the case. Ellen's father filed the suit, he says, "out of my concern for her and her privacy." Ellen is unmoved. "I saw him as this weak, pale, pathetic little man," she says. "I'm no longer scared of him." As for her future, she says she hopes to help abused children. "Most people don't want to believe that a child is telling the truth," she says. "I do."

Jill Smolowe
Rochelle Jones and Elizabeth Velez in Washington, D.C.

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