By Gerri Elder
April Griffin is not the first mother to spend time in jail for refusing to share child custody. There have been many other cases of mothers who believed that their children were at risk of being abused by their fathers and went to jail rather than have the child spend time with the alleged abuser. Some have received a large amount of media attention, while others have not made nationwide headlines.
One of the most notable headline-making cases of a mother determined to protect her child, either from real or suspected danger, was that of Dr. Elizabeth Morgan. Dr. Morgan made worldwide headlines in the 1980s when she went to jail for two years rather than allowing her daughter to attend court ordered visitation with her father. The case gained so much media attention that a made-for-television movie about the it, A Mother's Right: The Elizabeth Morgan Story, aired in November, 1992.
Dr. Morgan and Dr. Eric Foretich had a daughter, Hilary Foretich, during their marriage. The couple filed for divorce shortly after Hilary was born and began litigating their child custody battle during 1983 when Hilary was still an infant. Dr. Morgan alleged that Dr. Foretich had sexually abused their young daughter and refused to allow Dr. Foretich any type visitation with Hilary, even if it were to be supervised.
Despite Dr. Morgan's allegations of sexual abuse and objections to visitation, during the custody case the judge granted Dr. Foretich child visitation with Hilary.
Dr. Morgan rejected the court order allowing Dr. Foretich to have visitation with their daughter and sent the child to live with Morgan's parents in New Zealand. She was jailed for contempt of court in August of 1987 for refusing to obey the court order.
Elizabeth Morgan spent over two years in prison for contempt before a special act of Congress, the Elizabeth Morgan Act, allowed her to be released from prison in 1989 by placing a cap on the amount of time a person can be held in jail for contempt. She had served 25 months behind bars, making history for the longest imprisonment for civil contempt in the United States.
After she was freed, Dr. Morgan joined her daughter in New Zealand in 1990. A court in New Zealand granted her full custody of her daughter, however the visitation order in the United States allowing Dr. Foretich overnight visits was still in effect, which prevented Dr. Morgan from returning to the United States with Hilary.
In 1997, when Hilary was 14 years old, President Clinton signed a bill into law that stripped the D.C. Superior courts of jurisdiction over Dr. Morgan and allowed her to return to the United States with her daughter without fear of being prosecuted for contempt of court.
In 2003, a full 20 years after the start of the custody case between Dr. Morgan and Dr. Foretich, there was more legislative action related to this epic custody battle. Dr. Foretich filed a lawsuit to clear his name and repair his reputation that had been damaged in the very public custody case, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit made a ruling.
The judges on the appeals panel in the case of Foretich v. United States ruled that the Elizabeth Morgan Act passed by Congress in 1996 was a bill of attainder and was therefore unconstitutional.
And so, with Hilary now an adult and Dr. Morgan remarried, this case is now closed. However, the issue of how far mothers will and should go to protect their children remains.
No one knows how long April Griffin will spend in jail for refusing to share custody of her son with a man she says is an abuser. She may be the next woman to make history for the length of a jail stay for contempt, or her son may be found and his father allowed to share custody of him. This may be the next 20 year custody battle, or it may end quietly. As of now, there seems to be no legislation pending to help Griffin, or the scores of other mothers who would rather go to prison than put their child in perceived danger.