Sunday, January 25, 2009
For every father, it is the stuff of nightmares - the shattering revelation that your child is not actually yours at all but the progeny of another man.
That was the scenario at the heart of a controversial court case this week about a husband allegedly duped for 17 years by his wife into bringing up her lover's child as his own.
It was the first 'paternity fraud' case to reach the Appeal Court, and was sparked by the man's discovery of the lie after a DNA test showed his then 18-year-old daughter was not his daughter at all.
Though it seems an extreme betrayal by any standards, it's a story which Matthew Edwards can relate to all too well.
For his own dreams of fatherhood were shattered in the same way.
The 33-year-old engineer from Cheshire readily admits he was overwhelmed with tears when the child he thought was his own was placed in his arms ten years ago.
As he held the baby girl, his exhausted partner, Emma, who had endured a horrific two-day labour, looked on with happiness and relief. She nodded as Matthew invited his mother, Patricia, into the room to watch her weeping son with pride.
Patricia - knowing nothing of the grotesque deception - was sure they would make wonderful parents, despite their youth: Matthew was just 23, and Emma a year younger.
But today, it's a scene that Matthew recalls only with anguish and bitterness. He is close to tears again - this time for a very different reason - as he talks about the little girl he adored so much.
'To say I am devastated is an understatement,' he says. 'There are no words to describe adequately the loss I feel. For almost ten years I thought I was a dad to the most perfect child.
'I lived with the pains of Emma's pregnancy, I went to the antenatal classes and was there at the birth.
'Sarah's birth was the most incredible moment of my life. I looked at her tiny face and found myself smiling at a female version of myself. She looked so much like me - the same rounded face and hairline. I simply fell head over heels in love with her.
'That night, I rang friends and relatives to tell them the good news. The next day, I went for a few drinks to wet the baby's head.
'Over the years, I became so proud of my little girl. I loved hearing about how she was doing at school, and was so pleased that she excelled at sports, just like I did at her age. She was a really great sprinter.
'To find out that she is not really mine has been a huge loss. It is akin to a bereavement - only the grief is twisted, even magnified, because she is not dead.
'I am no longer a father. I'm left with not only a bleak chasm of loss but also an enormous sense of betrayal. Emma must have known for all these years that I might not be Sarah's dad.'
'Her birth was the proudest moment of my life'
Today, in the immaculate home he once shared with Emma, there is not a trace of the child who once lived here.
Any physical reminders - Sarah's paints, drawing sets and books - have been thrown away. It is simply too painful for Matthew to remember what they once had when now he has no contact with her whatsoever.
Matthew's story begins in July 1993. Then 17 and a college student, he went to a friend's birthday party and met Emma, a 16-year-old schoolgirl. After a party kiss, the pair began dating.
Matthew says: 'Emma was my first long-term, serious girlfriend. We saw each other virtually every day and I honestly believed I was her only boyfriend.
'I thought I was in love with her, but I was very young and hadn't thought of settling down yet. But after she left school, Emma kept talking about having babies and seemed reluctant to work.
'She was always talking about settling down, and within a couple of years she found herself pregnant. It was a shock. I have to admit to wondering if she'd done it to trap me - after all, by now I had a good job as an engineer.
'But part of me also felt pleased. Although we were young, we never once considered not having the baby. I remember telling my mum and all my friends I was going to be a dad. I was actually incredibly proud.'
Within days, Matthew had asked Emma to marry him. 'It seemed the right thing to do and we planned to marry after the baby was born,' he says.
Although Matthew was then on a junior engineer's salary, he saved every penny and managed to buy a three-bedroom house in Bredbury, Cheshire.
It needed work, but had the potential to be a beautiful family home. The couple moved in together but - in hindsight - their relationship was already in trouble.
'Emma wasn't looking after herself properly,' recalls Matthew. 'She was pregnant, but not eating properly and while I was working all hours to prepare for our baby's birth, she would go out with her friends.
'I was furious - I was worried about the effects on our unborn baby - and it caused endless rows.'
In November 1996, Emma went into labour. Matthew says: 'The birth experience was worrying because at one point the baby's heart rate dipped. I also felt incredibly worried about Emma.
'But when Sarah was finally born I felt so proud of Emma. I remember looking at mum and daughter and feeling I was the luckiest man alive to have such a beautiful fiancee and baby girl.
'I will never forget opening the delivery room door to my mum, who was waiting outside, and telling her: "I've had a little girl." Sarah was her first grandchild - she was so happy.'
After a couple of days in hospital, Matthew brought Emma and baby Sarah home. But, while he had envisaged them bonding as a new family, Emma had other ideas.
'Within hours, her mum had arrived to help out,' he says. 'Of course, at first I was delighted to have the support. I hadn't been able to afford time off work and I was just relieved Emma had her mother there with her to help.
'But she just took over - and she didn't go. Weeks later she was still staying over. I wanted to be a hands-on dad but I wasn't even allowed to change a nappy.
'The fact that Emma wouldn't let me near Sarah caused more rows. I felt pushed out - I had bought her baby clothes and little toys. But that wasn't enough because I wanted to feed her and care for her as well. Emma just wouldn't let me.
'She was always saying: "Daddy, I love you"'
'One day, when Sarah was just three months old, I gave Emma an ultimatum - I told her it was me or her mum. I thought she'd realise that I was feeling shut-out and how serious it had become.
'And, of course I thought she'd choose me. But she didn't. She said: "I'd choose Mum any day." She went to live with her.'
Matthew put it down to postnatal depression and desperately hoped that after a spell with her mother Emma would come home.
'It was a terrible time,' he says. 'Everyone was upset - especially as Emma wouldn't let me see Sarah. But I hoped it was just because Emma was so young. Certainly, I never thought it might be because she knew Sarah wasn't mine or because she was seeing someone else.
'I had to be content with her coming to see me with Sarah. She would never let me see Sarah on my own - she always had some excuse, such as she had to feed her or she wasn't well and needed her mother.'
However, by the time Sarah was two the couple had come to a mutual arrangement that Sarah would come on her own to stay with her father every Sunday.
Meanwhile, Matthew paid Emma maintenance by standing order every week. 'I lived for those Sundays,' says Matthew. 'Often, I took her to my mum's house and my mum, sister and brothers would all make a huge fuss of her. My mum adored her - as we all did.'
For the next five years, Matthew saw Sarah every Sunday. 'We'd go out to the park and zoos. As she got older, we went to theme parks or the cinema,' he says. 'Sometimes we'd stay in and paint and draw together, or we'd bake cakes to take home to mummy.
'She often brought schoolwork round for me to help her with. I used to get such a buzz when she said that because of me she'd done well in a school test.
'She was always saying: "Daddy, I love you." And I would say back to her: "And Daddy loves you, too."
'Only one thing constantly upset me. As she grew older, she'd ask: "Why can't I see you more, Daddy?"
I used to tell her to ask her mother that. In fact, I'd asked Emma many times for more access to Sarah but Emma always refused.
'I wanted to take her on holidays, have her over to stay for a week during school holidays. Although I always gave her birthday and Christmas presents, I felt upset that I was never allowed to see her on those special days.
'I took legal advice but discovered pursuing it through the courts could cost me thousands. I just couldn't afford it. And Emma couldn't be persuaded.
'We didn't get on at all. When I used to picked Sarah up, I was sometimes just met at the door by Emma's new boyfriend or a relative - we rarely spoke.
'The CSA demanded £5,000 from me'
'And when, in 2001, I met my new partner, Georgina, things got worse. Georgina really got on well with Sarah - she was really like a second mother to her.
'But when Emma discovered we were going out as a family threesome, she stopped me seeing Sarah at all.
'Eventually, after a couple of months, she relented because Sarah was asking why she couldn't see her daddy. I decided I would wait until Sarah was older and then, with pressure from Sarah to see me, I would press to see her more.'
But nearly two years ago, Matthew received a letter from the Child Support Agency (CSA) saying that from now on all maintenance payments had to go through them.
Matthew was told to cancel his monthly standing order paying maintenance to Emma until they had calculated the amount he should pay. But when, finally, after months they came back to him, their calculations took his breath away.
'Not only did they claim I owed Emma more than £5,000 in back payments, but my regular payments had risen by £300 a month,' he says.
It was an amount Matthew could not pay, but even so the CSA began debiting the money directly from his salary paid by his employer.
Seeing her son falling into debt, Matthew's mother Patricia decided to step in. She told him that she had doubts about Sarah's paternity.
'Our family are all petite,' says Matthew. 'But Sarah was very tall. Plus, my mum didn't trust Emma. So she spoke to Georgina about it, and Georgina said to me that in light of the CSA's demands, I should have a DNA test done.
'At first I was horrified and furious. I told both of them they were completely wrong - I had never thought for a moment that Sarah wasn't my child. I wouldn't even consider such a thing.'
But the seed of doubt had been sown, and few weeks later Matthew decided to send off for a £195 DNA testing kit he found on the internet.
Matthew says: 'Sarah thought taking a DNA swab of the inside of her mouth was a game but I felt incredibly guilty, although even as I did so I also had no doubt that she was my daughter.'
So, when the results came back 11 days later saying Matthew could not possibly be Sarah's father, he was stunned.
'Initially, I thought there must be some mistake,' he says. 'I even rang the company and quizzed them because I thought the sample might have been contaminated or swapped for someone else's.
'But when they said they were sure no mistake had been made, it hit home and I began to cry.
'I felt so sick that I could hardly go into work or speak to anyone. I just felt absolutely bereft. I was too upset to see Sarah that weekend - I knew I couldn't lie to her about her parentage, yet I didn't feel it was my place to tell her.'
'I wish I had never found out'
The CSA contacted Emma to arrange a further test. Matthew decided to wait until it was officially corroborated and then try to sort out some continuing contact with Sarah.
But because Emma continually refused to have a test done, months slipped by. 'I was in turmoil wondering about Sarah,' says Matthew. 'Emma's mother even stormed round one day demanding to know what was going on. When we showed her the DNA results she was shocked, too.
'Obviously, Emma had told no one. To this day I have no idea who the father is - I never knew Emma was seeing anyone else when she was with me.
'I feel incredibly betrayed. Now I look back and think she probably knew Sarah wasn't mine, which was why she never let her go on holiday or stay overnight with me.
'Yet, even though I wasn't Sarah's dad, I longed to see her. When I looked into it though, I realised that without Emma's full co-operation it was impossible because now I had no parental rights whatsoever. Now she refuses to let me see her at all.'
Emma, who constantly denied Matthew wasn't the father, finally took an official DNA test in September 2007, which confirmed the original result.
The CSA repaid some £4,000 to Matthew, although he estimates he has lost thousands more in payments. Despite this repayment, he regrets the CSA's involvement.
'Without them I can't help but feel none of this would have happened,' he says. 'I would have continued paying the agreed amount and been none the wiser.
'I don't blame my mum and Georgina for telling me because I was under a lot of stress financially and they felt they had no choice. But I wish I had never found out. I have lost my daughter, Sarah has lost a father and a whole family who loved her.'
Matthew has not seen Sarah for the past 18 months. 'Not a day goes by that I don't think about her and how she is,' he says. 'I wonder how she is getting on at school.
'She must think I'm a monster. Even now it breaks my heart to think of what she has gone through. After all, she is completely innocent in all of this.
'My whole family has been broken. It has had huge ramifications - like a pebble dropped in a pool.
'It has affected my mother, who now feels guilty that she aroused my suspicions, as well as my brothers, sisters and their children, who loved playing with her.
'I still can't believe any of it has happened, and I don't know what to do next. How can it be that I am no longer a dad when there is a little girl out there for whom I care so very much?'