March 24, 2016

After the story

By Margaret Simons
After the story
Francine (left) with her mother Susanna and siblings in their home.
What did an award-winning story on the children of Australian sex tourists achieve?

You can find Hadrian’s Extension on Google Earth. Search for Balibago, Angeles City, and you will see the locality. Find Hadrian Street. Then, at the northern end, look for where the street disappears. There are no addresses here. There is no street view. Google’s glossy vehicles have never navigated their way past the humpies built on the rancid rubbish dump, or down the narrow lanes.

Yet people live here, and many of them are children. Some of these children are, in theory, entitled to Australian citizenship, because their fathers are Australian.

Wander these laneways and you will see evidence of other parentage – children with Nordic features or Korean, or Chinese. But we will never hear of these children, and their claims on their fathers’ nations will never be acknowledged. They are the children of sex tourists.

A little more than a year ago photographer Dave Tacon and myself were in Hadrian’s Extension researching this story, which went on to win the Walkley Award for Social Equity journalism and the Quill for best feature.

We wrote about the shattering poverty in which these children live. There was 10-year-old Kevin, the son of an Australian paedophile, and 11-year-old John, whose father lives in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne and has a comfortable middle-management job, but has stopped paying child support.

Then there was little seven-year-old Francine, living with her five siblings in a building with an earth floor and no running water or sanitation.

There is something strange – almost offensive – about attending a sparkling journalism award ceremony at $155 a ticket, knowing that the people you wrote about are still in much the same condition as when you left them.

If I ask a class of first-year journalism students how many of them want to change the world, most of the hands go up. Journalism is meant to achieve change. This story, feted and rewarded, would perhaps be expected to achieve that more than most.

Not so much.

One of the systemic problems we uncovered was with the Australian authorities. Australia and the Philippines have a reciprocal arrangement under which a child-support assessment raised under Philippine law can, in theory, be enforced against an Australian resident.

In practice, it is a fiction. The Australian Department of Human Services, asked to spell out the procedure by which this can be done, advised us that mothers should lodge their request first with the solicitor general of the Philippines.

The barriers to doing this are all but insurmountable. The solicitor general does not respond to requests for the correct procedure, and there is nothing about it on the website.

We tracked down John’s father at his place of employment in Melbourne. We asked him why he had stopped paying the couple of hundred dollars a month he used to send for his son’s support. He refused to discuss it with us.

Meanwhile, his Facebook page continues to catalogue his adventures, including frequent overseas holidays, with his new Filipino partner. He refuses to talk to the woman who is raising his son – John’s grandmother. He has blocked her on Facebook, and does not respond to her phone calls.

We helped John’s grandmother lodge an application to the Australian Department of Human Services for child support. This application included John’s birth certificate and photos of the boy with his father in happier times. That was almost a year ago. The family have heard nothing.

John’s grandmother, meanwhile, has in the last few weeks been interviewed by telephone by the Filipino solicitor general’s office. She says “I almost lose hope that I would get a response because it took so long.” So far, there is no action, and little news.

Meanwhile, John is acting up at school. Among 52 in his class, he is number 16. He is clearly bright, but the chances of him getting a decent education in the public system are minimal.

Things at home are tough. His grandmother says: “We still manage to eat three times a day despite that my husband and I don't have work.” They depend on a tiny income from running a little shop, selling groceries to those in Hadrian’s Extension who are even poorer than they are.

In recent months, I once again contacted the Department of Human Services to ask whether there were any plans to change the procedures that make it so difficult for Filipino families to pursue Australian fathers.

This query travelled from the department to the minister’s office. Finally, I received a response I was told had to be “on background”.

The child support policy where a parent and child live in a reciprocating jurisdiction (such as the Philippines) and the other parent lives in Australia has not changed, and there are no current plans to change it.

I asked why this anodine statement had to be on background, rather than on the record. The reply:

You can use it – just not as a direct attribution. If you want a spokesman comment – I’d revise and include some of the information you were previously provided.

Somehow, I managed to turn that offer down.

The Australian government clearly feels no need to act on behalf of its potential citizens overseas. In any case, only a minority of the children we met could prove their parentage to the satisfaction of the authorities.

Yet there are some changes as a result of what we wrote.

After the article was published, a reader contacted me saying that she believed that in this sad old world personal acts of generosity were the only reliable way of helping our fellow human beings.

She was not the only one to feel that way. In particular, the West Australian writer Alice Nelson undertook to sponsor one of the children we wrote about, seven-year-old Francine.

Since then, she has also paid for the Australian children we wrote about to have a day-long outing at a local fun park – an unheard-of treat, their pleasure at which is hard to adequately describe.

Nelson’s father has also paid outstanding school fees for John, which allowed him to continue his education. He sends the family a small amount of money every month.

Even getting money to the families is expensive. They have no bank accounts. Some of them do not even have official government identification cards. They don’t officially exist. Western Union transfer, with all its associated fees, is the only way of getting them cash.

Francine’s mother, Susanna Abarca de Guzman, is 35 years old and has six children. Before our story, she was working in nightclubs, taking home an average of 120 pesos, or about A$3.50, a night, and struggling to make ends meet. She knew she was getting too old for the work.

Susanna met Francine’s Australian father in 2006. His name was Thomas. “He was nice. He was bald. He was about sixty,” she says. They stayed in touch for a while, and when she told him she was pregnant he sent her two Western Union transfers of about 10,000 pesos each – or about $600 altogether. The documentation showed that the transfers were made from Australia.

Alice Nelson now sends the family $300 a month. In the Philippines, this is the difference between despair and hope.

Francine is now at a private school. Nelson also paid the hospital bill when Susanna’s youngest child got pneumonia – quite probably saving his life.  The family now live in a flat with running water and sanitation, and have medical insurance and enough money to eat decently.

Susanna says that when she was first asked to tell her story, she was ashamed.

“I was so reluctant because I am ashamed of my story to be told in the article that the whole world could see.”

Our “fixer”, local woman Marivic Panilawan, convinced her to be interviewed by saying she should be proud that she did not abort her daughter.

Now Susanna is glad she was interviewed. “The article helps a lot. The only help I didn’t get from the article is it didn’t get the attention of Thomas.”

Meanwhile Francine likes to believe she will one day meet her Australian father. She said she hoped he would read this article.

She says to him: “I believe that if you see me now you will regret that you did not acknowledge me, I want to know my sister and brother from you, if I have any. Kahit isang beses Lang gusto kita makita at makausap.” (Even just for one time I really want to see you and talk to you.)

Alice Nelson’s sponsorship has probably saved Francine from a life in the sex trade.

Her current ambition is to be a teacher. “So that I can teach children who cannot afford to go to school. I am going to study hard and be a good kid. Someday, I will help my Mom and help to send my siblings to a private school. Then, I will go to Australia to meet Aunt Alice and maybe to find my Dad.”

Some other people who read the article offered to sponsor children, but either did not follow through at all or started to contribute, and then let it drop. The saddest case in our story was that of Kevin, the son of an Australian paedophile who groomed Kevin’s 14-year-old mother online before visiting and impregnating her.

Kevin was living on a rubbish dump when we first met him. After our article, he too was briefly sponsored and moved with his family to an apartment. Then the sponsorship fell through, and he returned to living with his grandfather and uncle.

We offered to sponsor Kevin ourselves, but the lives of people in Hadrian’s Extension are chaotic. His mother has taken him to live far away, pursuing a new relationship. Nobody has heard from them for some time.

Kevin wanted to be a pilot. At this stage, that would take a miracle, and miracles are thin on the ground in Hadrian’s Extension.

The Filipino families we wrote about are keen users of Facebook, when they can afford credit for their mobile phones. They were among the first to post congratulations when our awards were announced at the Walkley and Quill awards ceremonies.

This is the world we live in – a function room in Crown casino full of cocktail dresses and suits, streamed in real time to the people of Hadrian’s Extension, who are struggling to afford roofing material to repair their homes after the latest hurricane.

They are in touch, yet abandoned. Included, yet unacknowledged. They are disowned.

People wishing to sponsor the children of Hadrian’s Extension can contact the author on [email protected] 

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and journalism academic. She has written numerous books, articles and essays, including the Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin.


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