By SARAH HARRIS
When David* first held his little girl, he wasn’t overcome by paternal love and joy that so many other fathers often describe. He was 21. Too young, he says, to become a dad.
But more than that, he remembers feeling something was wrong; that the baby in his arms wasn’t his. As she grew to be a happy toddler that doubt became harder to wrestle with; her dark skin and brown almond-shaped eyes in stark contrast to David’s own blue-eyed, fair skinned complexion.
“She assured me I was the only one,” he recalls of Donna*, the woman with whom he’d shared a brief fling. “She said there was no way it could be anyone else’s.”
Despite his doubts, David didn’t shirk his responsibility; paying child support and sharing custody with his ex. “I just raised her as my own,” he tells me, his voice quiet.
The truth eventually came by text message.
“It said she wasn’t my daughter and I’d never see her again,” David says, shaking his head. “There was disbelief, anger, just the betrayal of it all…”
His daughter had just turned nine. A DNA test later confirmed that the girl wasn’t his.
Information obtained by Nine News reveals more than 100 women have been ordered by courts to pay back child support money under Section 143 of the Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989, which was toughened up in 2007.
Over the same six year period from 2007 to 2012, the courts cancelled 773 child support orders involving men shown by DNA not to be the father of the children.
A Section 143 order is applied only to cases where the mother either knowingly deceived the father, or where there was clear negligence in paternity checks.
“It’s an impossible situation for everybody,” Sue Price, tells me over the phone from her home office in Brisbane. “It’s all caused by people not being honest in the first place.”
Sue is the founder of the Men’s Rights Agency, a group whose website declares “men and boys face increasing hostility just because they are male”. Sue has a problem with child support, in general. She says the financial demands of single mothers ”are crippling” for men, and have even left some destitute: “It’s a frequent occurrence to find them sleeping in the back of their car while trying to maintain a normal life; going to work clean and tidy and everything else.”
Figures collected by the National Council for Single Mothers and The Children suggest a very different side to the story. From June 2012, 290-thousand Australian children were owed a staggering $1.2 billion in unpaid child support; and it was mostly dads who didn’t pay up.
Yet, calls for mandatory DNA paternity testing in child support cases are growing louder; led by lobby groups like Men’s Rights Agency, and men who feel betrayed, like David. “It runs through your mind what could have been, what could have happened if you’d had have known years ago,” he says, looking at a photo of his younger self, holding the daughter that biologically wasn’t his.
“She conned me.” David’s talking about Donna now.
“She has no empathy. There’s no remorse. There’s never been a sorry.”
“There’s no evidence to suggest this it is a trend. It is very rare,” says Therese Edwards, CEO of the National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children.
She argues demands for mandatory DNA testing in child support cases are “destructive” and would only increase the stress on expectant mothers, already facing the uncertainty of life as single parents. “What will be the impact on the child?”
It’s grainy, but the home video David shows me gives some heartbreaking insight. It looks like it has been shot on a mobile phone and shows his little girl speaking nervously to camera. Donna’s asking questions in the background.
“Where do you want to live? Do you still wanna see Daddy?” There’s a long pause, as the she fidgets with her brown curly hair. “Umm….” the child mumbles. Her voice is tiny. “Only for little visits.”
David has saved the video on his home computer as “Taliban Hostage Video”. There’s no question this is emotional warfare. And you can’t help but feel that, with all this fighting, a little girl is being forgotten. She’s collateral damage.
In the end, David sued his ex to recover some of his money, but says it was “hardly a victory”. A family court judge ordered his ex to pay back $25-thousand dollars in child support payments; he’d taken her to court for four times that amount. “I paid for her private school education, sports groups, music lessons,” he says “She never went without.”
David has a new family now, including three little ones all bearing his fair skin and blue eyes. He says he still struggles financially, but the emotional cost of a deception that lasted nearly a decade is the hardest to bear. It’s been two years since he’s seen his little girl. Still, David is hopeful. “I think she’ll come looking for me when she’s a teenager,” David says, his voice cracking a little, “And despite everything that’s happened, the door will always be open.”
Repeated calls to Donna, the girl’s mother, were not returned.
*All names have been changed for legal reasons.
Sarah Harris has been a journalist for more than a decade. She currently works as a reporter for the Nine Network and can be found on National Nine News. You can follow her on Twitter here.
What would you do if you were in David’s situation? Do you think the Child Support laws need to be changed?