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But for 20 years, some journalists, psychologists, researchers and lawyers have been skeptical. Eric Foretich passed three lie-detector tests in court — two administered by police. He has consistently filed lawsuits against media outlets, including ABC for portraying him as a pedophile in the 1992 TV movie The Elizabeth Morgan Story. ABC paid him a settlement, but Foretich has nearly gone bankrupt fighting the media, according to his attorney, Jonathan Turley.
He also tried many times to contact his daughter, and after a detective traced her and her mother to New Zealand, Foretich flew there and appealed to the courts. “He tried to plead his case as the ‘good father,’” Mitrano says with a sarcastic tilt of the head. “They sent him back with his tail between his legs.”
Foretich also tried to see his daughter during a court hearing in Washington, D.C., when she turned 18. It didn’t go well. Mitrano was furious and demanded that Foretich leave the courtroom. She recalls, “I remember screaming and telling him to get away from me.”
“She got a chance to give him a piece of her mind,” Morgan says. “He left immediately.”
The two women have been as consistent as Foretich in telling their version of what unfolded. Says Morgan today, “Before the visits began, she was a really happy baby. And then once the visits began, she was really unhappy. It was not subtle, I mean, something bad was happening.”
She would throw fits when her father came to pick her up for a visit and came home acting “like a zombie,” Morgan recalls. On the one occasion that Morgan asked her daughter to “act out” what was going on during the visits, the child, she says, began inserting objects into her genital area.
Mitrano says she remembers feeling unsafe, and trying to fight being taken to her father’s house. “There’s a certain kind of screaming that kids make — a certain type of scream— that I remember in my own head,” she says, and pauses to hold back tears. “It’s bone-chilling. It really is. It’s not a normal cry. It’s a child in mortal danger. And kids will tell you.”
Why, then, did the judge side with Foretich, ordering a two-week unsupervised visit to make up for his lost time with his child? There is no clear answer. According to Morgan, because it was a civil case and not a criminal one, the burden of proof lay with her.
A lot of men, among them similarly accused spouses, think otherwise. Jake Morphonios, the North Carolina coordinator for the fathers’ rights organization Fathers-4-Justice, writes in his Web column, the Liberty Tree, that in civil-court battles between parents, “constitutional safeguards are abandoned. The burden of proof falls upon the accused to prove a negative, or to conclusively show that an alleged event never occurred.”
According to Judge Dixon in the District of Columbia, the evidence offered against Foretich was “in equipoise’’ — an even split between evidence suggesting guilt and that which suggests innocence.
Foretich was contacted by L.A. Weekly, but declined to comment. According to online reviews, his small McLean, Virginia, dental-surgery practice is respected by patients and locals. His last official contact regarding the case was on December 16, 2003, when the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the Elizabeth Morgan Act, declaring it unconstitutional because it singled out Foretich and inherently accused him of the crime.
His attorney, Turley, a professor at George Washington University in D.C., at the time called it “a wonderful day of vindication.”
Courts now are frequently faced with allegations like those in Morgan vs. Foretich, hard to prove and even harder to dispel. The fathers’-rights movement now makes a point of warning fathers to prepare for abuse allegations.
“The mere accusation is sufficient to strip the father of all his custody rights and launch a criminal investigation,” Morphonios says.
Accusing Foretich of a crime would have been a big step for Judge Dixon, who saw the evidence as a draw. Morgan says of Dixon, “Since I was the squeaky wheel, he thought that all he had to do was get rid of me and the problem would disappear.”
And the problem did disappear, eventually.
“I visited my dad for the last time when I was 5,” Mitrano says. She takes a deep breath. “It’s a long time between 0 and 5. I think the biggest question that I had was, ‘Why wasn’t I safe sooner?’”
It’s a warm Friday night at the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Hollywood, and Mitrano stands under the glow of stage lights with a microphone in hand. She is surrounded by the buzzing, glittering life of a church carnival. Children with painted faces and parents pushing buggies stop in front of the stage and sit down.