WASHINGTON -- While the bewildering child custody case of Morgan vs. Foretich has captured international attention for years, coming to at least a temporary close late last month when a New Zealand court awarded custody of 8-year-old Hilary Foretich to her mother, a similar struggle over the parental rights of the child's 10-year-old half-sister was brewing in the shadows.
On Dec. 6, that struggle too came to at least a temporary halt when a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge reportedly asked for an order to be drawn up suspending visitation rights between that child, who lives with her mother in McLean, Va., and the father in both cases, Dr. Eric Foretich, a Northern Virginia oral surgeon.
The mothers of the two girls -- Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, who was Dr. Foretich's third wife, and Sharon Sullivan, his second wife -- have both charged their former husband in court with sexually abusing the girls. Dr. Foretich has vehemently denied the charges, and no court has ever upheld them.
In fact, judges in both courts, here and in New Zealand, have moved to suspend visitation between father and daughter not because there is sufficient proof of sexual abuse, but because family relations have become so bitter and tortured that, whether abuse took place or not, the children now believe it did.
According to news reports, New Zealand Family Court Judge P. D. Mahoney, in barring visits, said that Hilary has so often been told by Dr. Morgan and Dr. Morgan's parents that she had been abused by her father that "that is the reality, whether or not her belief has any basis in fact."
Fairfax County Circuit Judge F. Bruce Bach went one step further regarding the other child, saying, according to Dr. Foretich and other sources, that he didn't believe that Dr. Foretich had molested the girl, but that she believed he had.
His decision to suspend visits was based on the recommendation of Dr. Phyllis Daen, a therapist who supervised about six brief visits between Dr. Foretich and his daughter during the summer and fall in her office, with the goal of reconciling the father and daughter. Instead, sources say, Dr. Daen told the judge she didn't believe visits were in the child's best interest since they greatly upset her.
This case has proved to be as complex and confounding as Dr. Foretich's more publicized imbroglio with Dr. Morgan, who spent two years in jail after she sent her daughter Hilary into hiding.
The older child, long in the background of reports about Hilary, is in the custody of her mother, Ms. Sullivan, a former model who was married to Dr. Foretich from 1977 to 1984. The child, described as a well-adjusted, slightly shy girl who attends Catholic school in Fairfax, Va., has not had a relationship with her father since January 1986 -- except for several brief supervised visits in therapist's offices -- while investigations and court proceedings were under way.
There are conflicting accounts regarding which of the two mothers first brought up the issue of sexual abuse. Dr. Morgan has said that she suspected Hilary was being sexually abused only after hearing that Dr. Foretich's older daughter had made such claims. But Ms. Sullivan has said she didn't consider the possibility of sexual abuse until an investigation of Hilary was well under way.
Either way, in 1985, Dr. Foretich's father, Vincent Foretich, hoping to help vindicate his son, suggested to a social worker who was investigating charges of abuse of Hilary that she also interview the older daughter. The caseworker, Daisy Morrison-Gilstrap of the Fairfax County Department of Social Services, reported that in Hilary's case, the charges were "unfounded," but that in the older child's case, charges of sexual abuse were "founded."
The child then was taken to two therapists. Jean Albright, a social worker at the Chesapeake Institute, a mental health clinic in Silver Spring that deals exclusively with child sexual abuse cases, concluded that the child had been molested.
Dr. James P. McMurrer, a psychiatrist hired by Dr. Foretich, testified that "the child gave conflicting accounts," which led him to believe that "the child is trying to please both parents and is really being pulled in both directions."
In January 1986, Dr. Foretich agreed to suspend his visits with his daughter for six months in return for Ms. Sullivan's agreeing to take her to a therapist not affiliated with the Chesapeake Institute. The new psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Finch, saw
the child for almost a year. During most of that time, the child denied that her father had touched her.
But in November 1986, Ms. Sullivan took her daughter to Dr. Charles I. Shubin, director of pediatrics at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, who had found evidence of abuse in Hilary three months earlier.
According to testimony he would later give in court, he found that the child's hymen had an "oval and distorted appearance. . . . This tissue, in order to have this appearance, had to be stretched and had to be stretched up inside her, which means it took a penetrating injury."
According to Dr. Finch's records, after the examination by Dr. Shubin, the child told Dr. Finch that "she didn't want to see her father . . . because he had hurt her in her private area." The child said "she had not remembered that her father had hurt her until the doctor told her mother."
Six months later, the child was examined by Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, deputy chairwoman of the department of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who reported the child to be "entirely normal," with "no evidence of any scarring, stretching or lacerations." In June 1987, a six-day trial was held before Judge Bach in Circuit Court.
Judge Bach concurred with a Juvenile Court's finding that abuse had not been proved, but he said immediate visitation was not in the child's best interest since the girl was "frightened to death of her father." He ordered a therapist appointed "with the clear goal of getting the child back together with the father in some kind of normal visitation routine, as soon as that is consistent with the best welfare of the child."
The Court of Appeals of Virginia, which later upheld that opinion, quotes Judge Bach as having said at the trial:
"When I say [sexual abuse] is not proven by a preponderance of the evidence, that is not to say that there is no evidence of child sexual abuse by [the father], because clearly there's a lot of evidence of it, if you take Dr. Shubin's evidence. There is also a lot of evidence in this case that [the mother] put the child up to these things. She coached the child for reasons of her own. There's a lot of evidence of that."
Both sides agree that, as an appeals judge wrote last year, "great friction and discomfort existed between the father and the child." But while the child's mother believes the reason for this is clear-cut, judges have said the child's discomfort may be a result of the heated tug-of-war between the parents.