Subway Kids (2022) Documentary Series Explained
The five-part FX docuseries, Subway kids by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite revolves around one woman’s crusade to help young mothers struggling to save their children from sexually abusive fathers. She is Faye Yager, the woman known for her underground network that operated in the 1980s and 1990s, sometimes even helping the non-custodial parent kidnap her abused child from the abuser. The elaborate network created by Faye then caused these families to disappear and emerge with new identities. Faye Yager claims she has helped over 1,000 sexually abused children who have all been rejected by the system. While Faye’s vigilantism raises many pertinent questions regarding the justice system, her methods and beliefs have sparked much controversy. In Children of the Underground, Cowperthwaite explores all the different aspects of Faye Yager’s activism and vigilantism.
What can mothers do when the justice system fails them?
Children of the Underground opens with an episode chronicling the horrific experiences of a young mother named April Curtis. April separated from her husband. Their baby girl Mandy visited the dad over the weekend. However, after a weekend visit, April observed visible signs of abuse and Mandy revealed that her father had caused the injury. April immediately filed a complaint with the police and hoped she would get full custody. But nothing has changed. The court kept sending the little girl to her abuser. April fought for more than two years in family court, but the father’s abusive behavior wasn’t even considered a crime.
Later in the docuseries, Cowperthwaite employs talking heads to let us know what the family court landscape was like in the 1980s and 90s. The judges were mostly white males, middle-aged or elderly. They did not receive properly verified information. Emotional mothers are said to be “hysterical”, while calm husbands are said to be “stable”. Moreover, even the judges felt that fathers from a normal suburban background did not fit the role of a man abusing a child. In fact, family courts were convinced that filing abuse of any kind is a method used by mothers to win custody battles. Psychic evaluations and other material evidence were also not deeply considered by family courts because they simply did not have the resources to investigate and assess the situation.
This is how the justice system has repeatedly failed mothers like April Curtis. The mothers were ordered to send their children, despite the history of abuse. At some point, April collected medical evidence that Mandy had been sexually abused by her father. But to his dismay, no criminal charges were brought against him. Therefore, April fled with her daughter. She could be charged with a crime of kidnapping, but there was no other option left for her. That’s when April Curtis hears about Faye Yager’s underground network and the young mother’s journey to forge a new identity begins.
Why Faye Yager became a crusader and a vigilante?
Faye was born and raised in a small town in West Virginia. She married Roger Jones when she was 17 and later gave birth to Michelle Jones. In the early 1970s, Faye caught her husband molesting their baby girl, Michelle. Nevertheless, Roger Jones managed to convince a judge that Faye was a hysterical and crazy woman. She was committed to a psychiatric hospital and Michelle was placed in the custody of her attacker. Faye later married a doctor named Howard Yager, but for the next decade she was only allowed supervised visits – once a month – with Michelle.
In 1986, Roger Jones was charged with child sexual abuse in another case. Additionally, he ended up on the FBI’s most wanted list for possession of child pornography and sexual assault. Faye deeply understands what it means when the criminal justice system fails a mother who wants to protect her abused child. That’s why she dedicated her life to saving as many sexually abused children as possible. She developed a network of people across the United States to house runaway mothers and children. Many ordinary people supported Faye Yager’s campaign and offered to be part of her underground network. People working inside institutions like law enforcement also helped Faye. After an elaborate process, parent and child were given new names and identity papers in order to lead a new life.
There was a lot of media attention on Faye. She has befriended organizations working on a similar cause. She made the rounds on talk shows and pointed out how the ingrained bias and ignorance of legal institutions is the reason for her vigilantism. Even feminist and political activist Gloria Steinem makes an appearance on Children of the Underground and expresses her fascination with Faye Yager’s crusade. However, Faye Yager’s noble intentions were quickly questioned due to some controversies.
How the Satanic Panic Craze Undermined Faye’s Credibility
In the 1980s, fears of satanic cults and the occult swept across the United States. It was the era of Ronald Reagan and a decade that saw a rise in right-wing extremism and Christian conservatism. Numerous documentaries and in-depth articles have shown how the Satanic cult’s false claims have been exploited by the media and the American political establishment. In 1992, at the age of 44, Faye Yager was taken to court for emotionally abusing two children she had met through the network. Charges of child cruelty, interference with custody and kidnapping were brought against Faye. If proven, she would face a maximum prison sentence of 60 years. The jury, however, found in her favor, on the grounds that there was no evidence that Faye had done anything with malicious intent.
At the same time, the trial shows how Faye’s noble crusade went astray due to some of his beliefs. Hailing from a Christian background, Faye Yager may have thought Satanism was behind the skyrocketing rise in child abuse in the United States. Faye has done numerous taped interviews with the children who were rescued from their abusive parents. Few child psychiatrists argue that Faye’s aggressive methods of interviewing abused children could cause them more harm. Of course, Faye is not trained for this. But the taped interviews also show how Faye inadvertently attempted to tailor her account of satanic ritual abuse to these individual cases of abuse.
In Children of the Underground, Gabriela Cowperthwaite handles these gray shades of Faye Yager deftly. She interviews Christine and Kaylee, two women rescued by Faye’s Underground Network when they were little. However, even now, as adults, they could not comprehend the reality of what had happened to them, as for a time they believed in Faye’s fantasy version of evil. The pitfalls of Faye’s theory of Satanism were examined through the highly publicized 1984 McMartin Preschool Trial.
The case began with an accusation of sexual assault and child abuse against family members who ran a nursery school. Gradually it turned into an exaggerated narrative including torture, murder and animal sacrifice. Children’s testimonies of hidden tunnels, sacrificial killings and satanic rituals have been widely covered by the media. However, during the ensuing investigation and trial, the children’s testimonies were not corroborated by any hard evidence. The case was probably one of many prime examples of how not to interview abused or victimized children. As FBI Special Agent Kenneth Lanning says, “There’s a grain of truth [to McMartin Case], Something happened. But it all got lost in these bizarre allegations.”
Faye Yager’s legacy is somewhat plagued by similar issues. It is shown through the difficulties of Christine and Kaylee’s life how the sensational and supposedly imaginary claims of Satanism have deprived them of a perspective to understand what had been done to them. In fact, it kind of affected their healing journey.
Why did a millionaire swear to destroy Faye Yager?
In June 1997, Ellen Dever, ex-wife of Philadelphia millionaire Bipin Shah, disappeared with her two young daughters – aged 8 and 6. Faye may not be sure her client is telling the truth in all cases. At the same time, it was the beginning of an era where people and institutions were trying to understand the different forms of abuse, much of it directed against women and children. Dever claimed to be a victim of domestic abuse. However, Dever never alleged that Bipin Shah abused their children. Since Faye only helped mothers whose children suffered from abuse, this particular case was considered an anomaly.
Moreover, Bipin Shah was a resourceful man and became a strong opponent of Faye Yager. He announced a $2 million bounty for anyone who can find his ex-wife and children. The bounty announcement had a huge impact on Faye’s operation. Twenty months after their disappearance, Bipin Shah was reunited with his children and his ex-wife in Switzerland. He also sued Faye for $100 million. Shortly after the Bipin Shah episode, Faye walked away from the movement she had built. She has stayed out of the spotlight ever since. Although she gave Cowperthwaite a brief interview for the docuseries, she does not appear on camera.
Children of the Underground largely offers a very nuanced and multifaceted portrayal of Faye Yager and her beliefs. However, there are a few things that don’t quite fit into the docuseries. One such aspect is the fight between Bipin Shah and Faye Yager. Details of the case remain unclear. In fact, Faye herself doesn’t feature prominently in the latest episode of the docuseries. April Curtis and Mandy/Amanda’s story comes full circle at the end, and this conflicted mother-daughter relationship was explored more brilliantly than Faye’s gradual retreat from the spotlight.
Faye Yager has dedicated herself to helping people who have failed and been wronged by the justice system. She made mistakes and some of her choices were messy. But that doesn’t take away from the awareness and call to action she initiated about child abuse. The underground network was actually the byproduct of a failing criminal justice system. by Gabriela Cowperthwaite Subway kids also works as a poignant account of survivors of abuse.