December 2005 - January 2006


How many sleeps?

By John King
How many sleeps?
Nothing prepares a parent for the day their partner does a runner and takes the children

“We only get two sleeps a week, sweetheart.” Meekly I attempt to explain again to her, my daughter, something about court orders.

“No,” she says. “It’s not fair. I want this many.” She’s flashing me her two hands with ten fingers spread, again and again. She has a point.

“Well we can’t. I mean, if I keep you here for that many sleeps Mum will wonder where you are, she might miss you, she might get angry and send a policeman to look for us.”

Her little face is all cross. “You don’t know what to do about Mum!”

I nod. She has another point.

“What happened, why I gotta be with Mum all the time?”

Here it is, the big one from my four-year-old. I couldn’t skirt the issue anymore. “Well sweetheart, it’s cos your mum got you first. I mean, she took you away and by the

time I found out where you were ...”

“She wouldn’t let you have me,” the four-year-old interjects knowingly.

“Yes sweetheart.”

“Ooh don’t like that!” She clenches her jaw. “Naughty Mummy!”

What was I thinking? Was Dad a failure because he couldn’t get her off Mum? “When the holidays come we’ll get more sleeps,” I tell her.

“How many sleeps?”

She’s looking at me now. She really wants to know. I flash her ten fingers twice. “About 20,” I say.

“I want more and more,” she says, her bottom lip protruding.

“I want to be with you Daddy. All the time. You’re very special and I love you.”

I gather her up. “Oh sweetheart, I love you too with all my heart.”

“Take me to your home now. I wanna go back home. I wanna see Grandma.”

“When the holidays come I’ll take you.” We cuddle each other. “How many sleeps would you like?” I ask, carrying her to the car.

“Thousand,” she says. “Thousand sleeps.”

“A thousand sleeps!” I say, chuckling and buckling her in. I start the car and reverse into the street, switching the air-con to full. “Well I reckon you might be right there. That’s about what we’re owed. Yep, three years’ worth. No worries, I’m with you sweetheart, a thousand sleeps will be our order.”

She’s quiet now, resigned. I may as well be talking to myself. She knows she has to go back and endure that dumb childcare centre then be picked up by her mother, and she won’t see or speak to me for five sleeps or longer. It’s awful taking her back. I try to ignore it but no amount of feigned cheerfulness will convince her or me, so once we are moving we rarely speak, just close ourselves in for the inevitable parting. I nudge the car further out into the snarl of oncoming traffic, hoping to prompt a driver to slow down and wave us into the stream. But they all sweep by faster, remote and self-consumed, with a million destinations they’re thinking to arrive at. I should just plant the foot and squeal into the traffic and upset them all, but I don’t. I don’t do that. I don’t take that risk. And that’s why my daughter is with her mother and not me, I suppose. Because I didn’t kidnap her first.

Legal kidnapping occurs when a parent absconds with a child, usually without the other parent’s knowledge. The absconding parent only has to keep the child for a minimum of three weeks to enjoy the Family Court’s presumption of the status quo of residency. In practice it seems to work best when it’s the mother who is the absconding parent, because mothers can more readily defend their action with allegations of violence or abuse and with subsequent AVOs (apprehended violence orders) launched against the father. Coupled with this is society’s myth that children are better off with their mothers. This is reflected in Family Court outcomes, where only 18% of residency cases are won by fathers. Most divorced or separated dads end up being the non-residential parent with “access” rights. It happened to me. It’s happened to most of the men I know.

My daughter’s mother and I had been having difficulties for some time. It was rare to receive a welcoming embrace. Instead I was accused of not loving her, of having affairs, of being somehow to blame for her suffering and unhappiness. I’d find my mail tampered with, personal mementoes missing or thrown out. Dishes and crockery would be smashed with no forewarning. She would seize on some innocent remark I’d made, convinced it was a slight against her or proof of betrayal, and she’d want to argue about it all night, depriving me of sleep. My attempts to comfort her and to prove my devotion were not believed. Dissatisfied, she would often rise in the middle of the night and drink a bottle of wine by herself then return in a hostile mood, tossing insults, exploding into a fury that would see her pummelling me with her fists and screaming that I hated her. Whenever I tried to leave the house to get some peace or to sleep out in the shed she would grapple with me, or throw rocks at my car, or threaten suicide.

We tried counselling. The prospect of separation was discussed. She indicated she might move to a town an hour’s drive away. Nothing was mentioned about the kids’ arrangements – there was a stepdaughter as well – and I assumed we’d continue to parent them on an equal basis. Some may argue there is no orderly way to separate. But nothing prepares you for the shock of arriving home and finding your house empty, your kids and partner gone, with no phone number and no forwarding address. It’s called “doing a runner”.

You ring around the country to no avail. If the runner has done their homework the trail will be cold. Days go by. You are beside yourself with worry for your children. When I sought legal advice I was told that until the whereabouts of my children were known a contact order could not be issued.

“Give it six months or so to settle down, then things tend to sort themselves out,” was what one family lawyer told me. I have since learned that what I really needed, before separation, was a residency order.

Another lawyer’s advice was: “Stay calm. Your kids are with their mother. They’ll be fine. Take a positive view – you’re free. No ties. It could be worse, she could have changed the locks and kept you out of your house. Now that she’s left your property it’ll be more difficult for her to claim it.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Didn’t anyone understand my parental feelings? My children had been snatched away and I didn’t know where they were. And I was convinced the mother was not in a fit state to care for them. I began to see that the reactions and advice I was getting all served society’s prevailing myths. That the mother–child bond is sacred (a father–child bond, if it is acknowledged at all, hardly compares). That kids should be left with their mothers. That mothers know best. That mothers can’t be bad. But dads? Well, sometimes they can be bad. Anyway dads can take it, they wouldn’t miss their kids like a mother does.

The constant anxiety was taking a toll on me, dipping me into a dangerous despair. One night, three weeks after they’d gone and with still no word on their whereabouts, I was in such a torment that I began visualising the gun that lives in the steel locker in the back shed. It loomed clear and inviting. Alarmed and shaking, I immediately got out of bed and drove to a friend’s place, arriving there before dawn, desperate and afraid.

Wayne Flannery has seven children. His first four children he saw once a year for eight years. He told me that as soon as he and his first wife separated a restraining order was put on him. “I wasn’t even near the kids at the time ... Yet they’ll take your child from you and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.” His fifth child, a daughter, lives up north with her mother and he flies her down twice a year, first for two weeks and then again for six weeks in summer. He is now on his third marriage with two young children. “Third time lucky,” he says.

Wayne’s quiet and wise eloquence despite his own bitter experience gave me the comfort I needed. “Love teaches us to use our instincts. But the law has precious little to do with love or what’s right or fair.”

“Great,” I said. “My instincts are telling me to find my kids and bring them home.”

“Hang in there,” he replied, “your kids will come to you.”

“Oh yeah, but how long before it’s all too late, and they’re so poisoned you can’t get anywhere?”

“I used to think that too. But you know what, lately it’s all been coming home. When Meg [his fifth child] was blueing with her mum about wanting to leave home, I ended

up counselling them both on the phone just to keep their relationship.”

“Really, after all the shit your ex put you through?”

“Yeah, but animosity gets you nowhere. Even at the height of all that I told her I hope she can look back in old age and see me as someone who helped her in her life. Because I’m not the enemy.”

“Tell that to my ex.”

“And then, just this year, she told me: ‘I really did love you.’”

“What did you say to that?”

“I said thanks for saying that.”

Another friend, Graham Fielder, said that when his ex did a runner with his child she put the police onto him on a charge of raping his own daughter. He had to sell his house to finance a legal defence. The case was thrown out of a magistrate’s court, but in the subsequent Family Court hearing the mud had stuck long enough for the orders to stipulate that when his daughter visited him, Graham’s mother must be present.

Before the hearing he was taken to a room where he was to see his daughter for the first time in 18 months. Looking on through one-way glass was a female court counsellor, who was there to observe how the child responded to each parent. Graham’s five-year-old was playing with toys as he entered the room.

“Gidday Amy,” said Graham.

“Hey Dad, what are you doing here?”

The court counsellor observed that Amy was “happy and surprised to see him”. The court counsellor’s report on Amy’s demeanour with her mother contained the words “non-communicative, slightly apprehensive, disconcerted, unsure and restless”. Police reports discussed the mother’s violent and destructive behaviour. But the court ruled that Amy should stay with her mum. After that Graham spent years being broke, flying his daughter down from northern Australia four times a year. Now that she’s a teenager she has voted with her feet and lives permanently with her dad.

A wise man once told me: “Eventually a child will go to the parent they’ve been kept from.” But I didn’t want to wait 12 years, or even 18 months. I wanted to continue equal parenting of my kids irrespective of whether I was with the mother or not.

After two months I received a fax from a legal aid office in Cairns. They advised me that if I wanted contact with my daughter it could be arranged through them. I was on a plane the next day. They kept me waiting a week in the sweltering humidity. I had to meet with my ex’s solicitor – a stiff, prim woman with hard, thin lips. She informed me that I could have two sessions of two hours’ supervised contact on the weekend at a family centre.

“Look, I don’t need supervised contact – I want my daughter with me for a few nights.”

The solicitor leaned forward. “My client fears you will take the child.”

“Just hang on a minute,” I said, the injustice rising in me like bile. “I’m not the one who took the child.” I stabbed my finger on the table. “Your client did that. Stole my child from her home and her loving father and took her interstate without my consent.”

“My client alleges violence on your part.”

“That is a lie.”

The solicitor was unmoved. She’d obviously dealt with many an irate father before.

“Do you have legal representation in Cairns?”

“Not yet.”

“I’d suggest you seek legal advice. In the meantime this is the contact being offered. Take it or leave it, Mr King.”

“I’ll take it.”

I turned up at the family centre at the designated time and was ushered into a waiting room. A woman came in and asked me a few questions and filled out a form. I knew I was being assessed. Because there’d been an allegation of violence, they had to do their checks and ascertain that I wasn’t a threat. I was beginning to feel like an inmate on his first day of induction. The woman left, then after about ten minutes she came back.

“Her mother has just dropped her off. She says she’s been showing her photos of you every day.”

“Great,” I said. My truckload of laconic sarcasm went unnoticed. In truth I was nervous as heck.

I was shown into a larger room containing assorted toys and blocks. I had my suitcase with me. I put it down. The woman briefly left, then returned. My daughter came shyly through the door wearing a pretty red sundress. She smiled and my heart melted in relief. She came over and I picked her up and we held each other for a long time. Here she was, my precious angel, all of 16 months old. She still knew me. I felt a vital part of myself returning. Remembering the workers were discreetly watching us, I put her down, careful not to project anything that might be deemed excessive. She led me round the toys. We played with balls. I pushed her in a toy car. At one point she climbed onto my suitcase, lay down and hugged it contentedly.

Time was up soon enough. The thought of being apart from her was like a prison sentence. I handed her back. The way ahead was clear. For my daughter’s sake I was going to have to move interstate to this city so she could be with me regularly. Being self-employed, I figured I could make do somehow. If I was a salary-earner I may not have had the choice. So I moved to Cairns, and for a while contact was three nights a week. But there was ongoing difficulty.

I complained to a man wiser than me. “She’s spreading lies about me.”

“Don’t worry about that, mate, they always do that shit,” said the man wiser than me.

Post-separation bitterness had generated slander, jealousy, hatred and an apparent vendetta to “punish” me, using the kids as pawns. I suppose my daughter’s mother felt hard done by. Maybe another failed relationship had reinforced her deep-seated feelings of low self-esteem, rejection and abandonment. Her response was to keep blaming the other party. I was not provided with an address or phone number for my daughter. All handovers took place at a childcare centre. My repeated requests to care for my daughter in her mother’s frequent absences were ignored. I had to put up with numerous unknown persons temporarily looking after her.

Attempts to have contact with my stepdaughter proved unsuccessful too. Morally and emotionally, I felt she had a claim to a relationship with me as much as my biological daughter. She’d called me Dad. The mother viewed it otherwise and the relationship was cut off. The loss for me was like a death.

Suddenly all contact ceased and I was informed by fax that it would not resume until “a legal structure” was in place. I was forced to take expensive legal action. After nine weeks I saw my daughter again, but only after I had received interim court orders reducing my contact to two nights a week. And still I was not given a phone contact or home address. Something Wayne Flannery had said – “Fathers can do the right thing but it is not necessarily reciprocated” – was proving true. I was skulking around this alien town, living from flat to flat, with my home and extended family support 2,000 miles away, putting up with token contact with my daughter, constantly in the orbit and range of salvos from a vengeful ex. I began to see that it wasn’t good for my daughter or me. I needed to return home to Victoria, where there was a stable and nurturing environment for her. One day, in Cairns, I collected my daughter from a car park in the city and her arms, face and legs were covered with weeping sores. “Daddy I got sores,” she whimpered, lifting her arms for me to pick her up. “Never mind sweetheart, we’ll get them fixed up,”

I said, cradling her. It would not be the first time I had to get her treated for impetigo (school sores) or ear and gastro infections.

“Why doesn’t Mum take you to the doctor?” I asked.

“She’s too busy.”

My daughter seemed overly anxious. Minor upsets would have her quick to tears. Late at night she unloaded her worries, telling me that at her mother’s house she often felt threatened or scared. “I want my Mum to be a good girl.

Why isn’t my Mum a good girl?”

Much of my contact time was spent soothing her, seeking medical treatment and trying to give her a bit of fun, a bit of carefree, childhood fun. From as young as three, she had been voicing a demand to be with me. “I want to be with you Daddy. All the time.” She needed to be with the parent she felt safe with. So like any parent I went into battle for her.

I filed for residency, even though all the advice seemed designed either to discourage me or to get me to accept “the situation”. The situation was my daughter had been taken from me. My instinct to care for and protect her remained. But I could not see her when I wanted. I could not make sure she was OK. I could not have her in my home. I could not cuddle her when she was hurt. I could not console her if she was distressed. I did not know where she lived. How was she to get her father’s love? She couldn’t run to her daddy’s arms. She couldn’t phone me. She couldn’t tell Dad she was hurt or sick or sad and have him hold her and make her feel better. She couldn’t get his protection. She didn’t know where I was.

It has been psychologically proved that a positive relationship with her father is crucial to a girl’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Girls learn love from their dads. A father’s adoring and protective love, his kindness and compassion, provides a blueprint for daughters to seek the same qualities in relationships with men in their adult lives. A woman who has difficulty maintaining loving relationships with men has often been a girl who didn’t get a father’s love.

I had come to understand that my daughter’s mother did not have a positive father figure in her childhood. She’d suffered sustained abuse. Now her deep resentment would erupt to destroy the love of any man who came near. I felt this made it even more important that my daughter keep a relationship with me, so that she did not fall victim to a repeat cycle of damage into the next generation. “If you dismiss your father out of your life,” said Wayne Flannery, “that’s how you will treat men.”

Before the court trial I sought out the local rep of the Lone Fathers Association – Ron Dowell – to see if he had any advice for me. Ron, a tanned and wiry cancer survivor in his late 50s, did not mince words.

“Do you have any AVOs against you?” Ron’s voice was an authoritative bark and his eyes were like blue steel.

“It’s been threatened.”

“Are you getting contact?”

“Well, I’ve got interim orders for two nights a week as long as I’m in this town. There’s been obstruction though. What I’d like is to take my daughter back to my home in Victoria. It’s hard for me to stay here.”

“OK, you are dealing with a gatekeeper mentality that will not hesitate to lie and accuse you of violence or sexual abuse to keep your child from you. If you take your daughter back to Victoria you will end up in jail. I’ve just come from seeing a bloke who is doing 18 months after rescuing his abused daughter from her mother. They were on the run for three months until the Feds found them.”

“I’ve ruled that out, that’s why I’m having a residency trial.”

“Who’s the presiding judge?”

“A Jenny Smith from Sydney.”

“Jenny Smith? Forget it mate, you’ve got Buckley’s. You might as well pack up and go home now. Save your money.”

“You’ve gotta be joking.”

“She’ll side with the mother. I know her.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Look, all you men continue to bleed on your own. So long as there is entrenched gender bias in the Family Court you’ll get nowhere. Lesbian feminists in the public, welfare and legal services have made it that way. Kids will continue to lose their dads. Fathers will continue to have their kids taken from them. Divorced fathers everywhere are suffering and dying, topping themselves. You’ve got to realise nothing’s going to change unless we all pull together and lobby the government.”

“You make it sound like a gender war. Both my lawyer and barrister are female – surely that’s a help?”

“Not a gender war. The Lone Fathers Association is about family rights. The right for kids to have both parents. We have women working with us and supporting us too.”

Ron left me a swathe of handouts and statistics to read. Here I was hoping for some support. Instead I felt gutted. Before he left, he fixed me with his eyes and said: “When you get final contact orders, make sure you hold the mother to it. Make her accountable.”

My oldest sister became involved, offering advice, information and support. She and my mother gave excellent supporting testimony in court. But the trial went as Ron called it: the judge ruled that my daughter must remain with her mother. The court-ordered family report highlighted my daughter’s expressed wish to live with her father. But she was not believed. The court assumed a fiveyear- old could not know her basic needs. So a professional psychological report was given no weight, the judge stating that she found the report biased towards me and against the mother. And according to my barrister, we didn’t have anywhere near enough “dirt” on the mother to come within cooee of splitting up siblings, even if there was a seven-year age gap between them. I had no claim to my daughter’s sister. This was it. The legal kidnap was complete.

“I tried hard to get you,” I told my daughter.

“I know you did,” she replied quietly.

With a heavy heart I embarked on the delicate matter of informing her I would be returning to Victoria.

“I don’t want you to go,” she pleaded tearfully.

“We’ll get more holiday time, sweetheart. Trust me, it’ll be better there for us. I’ve been here for you for five years. I need to be close to Grandma and Grandpa now, so I need you to be a strong girl for me, and when you come down in the holidays we’ll have the best time.”

I cuddled her close and hoped she wouldn’t see my tears.

“I wish I was coming with you,” she whimpered. I was holding her and holding myself lest we both burst from grief and longing.

When my daughter comes to visit we stay in the same house she was taken from. Sometimes it is six months between visits, sometimes three. We are together for periods of one or four weeks. Many times in the past she would suffer anxiety at having to return to her mother. Each time I have put her on the plane.

Since 1996 the Family Law Act has said that a child is entitled to a meaningful relationship with both parents. But if you’re the faraway non-residential parent it is hard to maintain contact. “Everything is debilitating, dysfunctional and soul-destroying,” says Wayne Flannery. “From the Family Court, to the custodial parents who think they own your kids and the kids don’t need their father, to the Child Support Agency that are straight on your case and don’t even give you the right of reply. There is no accountability back to the custodial parent. We should have a right to receipts for everything.”

The reality is if you can’t be with your children, it pushes you further away. Without them your biological purpose is taken and your existence unfulfilled. For some fathers, it can push them so far that the ultimate distance of suicide has a strange and compelling logic.

Now, at eight years old, my daughter says she is getting on better with her mother. I can phone her at her mother’s home and I know her address. When our contact time is over I take her to the airport and stand alongside other dads who are sending their kids back. An unspoken accord exists between us. Once I remarked to a man who had just seen off his tearful young son: “Hard to let them go, eh?”

“That’s divorce for ya,” he said, blinking back tears while walking slowly away, a figure of abject dejection. I held my tongue after that. There was nothing you could say to fathers who still hadn’t got used to the fact that their kids were no longer with them. My daughter and I witnessed many emotional airport scenes between fathers and their children. We were in them ourselves.

Now she says: “I promise I won’t cry, Dad. I’m used to it now.”

“That’s all right sweetheart, I’ll cry for us.”

Then my daughter says: “But I love you more than you love me.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“Oh yeah, by how much?”

“You’d be an apple, I’m a coconut.”

A long squeezy hug and a kiss and I watch her skip away, my smiling veteran of unaccompanied travel, blowing kisses and waving, then disappearing round the corner of the boarding aisle and onto her plane. She is gone.

It’s always a long walk back to the car park after that. I drift like a solitary ghost through the bustle and throb of the airport, feeling the absence return to me, as the fulltime dad mode slips from my being. It becomes easy to think that you’re only a dad when your kids are with you. With my daughter somewhere gaining altitude, strapped inside a plane that propels her at impossible speed into the heated north of the continent, finally I find my car and drive west towards a place, a cool place, where my daughter and I were born. A place where the air is sweet and clear and refreshing spring showers will suddenly blow in, leaving double rainbows arced and suspended in their wake. And where country roads, green paddocks, lakes and white gums all shine splendid, with raindrops on leaves, grass and fence-wire alike, bejewelled with sparkling sunlight. A place we were both taken from but where we’ll always belong. A place where we could dream the dream of a thousand sleeps together.

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