It's an uncomfortable fact of life that 50 per cent of divorced and separated fathers lose contact with their children after just two years. A few find reconciliation some years down the line, but most never see their children again. Are they uncaring and heartless, or unhappy victims of a system that favours mothers? Marina Cantacuzino talks to four absent fathers

Frankie Warner, 43, lives in Hemel Hempstead. He is single and in the process of starting up his own business. He last saw his daughter 18 years ago

"I WAS IN my early twenties when I became a father. It's strange how things often turn out so different from the way you imagine. I thought I was doing everything the right way round. We got married, got ourselves a flat and then decided to have children. Since my wife was five years older than me, she was very keen to start a family, and although I clearly wasn't ready for the responsibility, I don't recall any pressure from her.

"At first I was a very attentive father and totally delighted with my daughter. I had all the time in the world for her - I'd play with her, read to her at night and everything seemed great. The unfortunate thing was that my relationship with my wife began to deteriorate and we were clearly going nowhere. By now I was working away from home as a pipe fitter, living in digs during the week and coming home at the weekends. I was a nasty, sly bastard, and when I made the decision to leave I didn't consider my daughter's feelings at all. I loved her and presumed I'd carry on seeing her, but basically I was only thinking of myself.

"When I think about the reasons why I lost touch with my daughter, unemployment was a big contributing factor. Since I had no savings, the maintenance soon ran out and my wife got very angry. I was duly served with a restriction order, which only allowed me to see my daughter on certain days of the month. But I didn't have enough money for the train and bus fares and consequently the visits became very infrequent. After I'd sorted out the initial problems with my ex-wife, she wanted me to visit my daughter, but still I let it drift - a lot of that had to do with me stamping my foot and saying 'No'. Also, around this time, depression began to get the better of me. I remember very well the day when I realised I hadn't seen my daughter for six months; I panicked and rang my ex-wife, who said I should come down that weekend. But after that visit, I got involved with another woman and my selfishness took over again. I just let it rule my life. I actually remember getting up on Sunday mornings and starting to get dressed to catch the train in time to visit my daughter, but then getting pulled back into bed. I was so weak, I let it happen, and later I'd ring up saying I wasn't coming after all.

"By now my ex-wife had moved to Gloucestershire, which made visiting even more difficult, and I stopped seeing my daughter altogether. I could have phoned, of course, but I didn't. I don't think I was prepared to admit to myself that I was losing contact, but one day I woke up to the fact that I hadn't seen her for nearly two years. By then it was too late.

"Five years ago, on my daughter's 16th birthday, I got in touch and started writing to her. To my delight, she wrote back, and for a couple of years we corresponded two or three times a month, though she never wanted to meet me. However, when I tried to broach the subject of how and why I'd left her mother, she stopped writing. I know that when I left her she was very distressed and would ask for me every night, so it must have just been too painful hearing from me after all these years. It was as if I was waving a flag in front of her saying, look at all this pain which I caused you. She wasn't ready for that.

"I wrote on for a while, but I've stopped writing now, because in one of her letters she said she didn't want me to harm her mother or step- father. Her step-father has been very good to her and has brought her up as his own, so for everyone's sake I felt it was best that I stand back.

"She's at university now and I know I'm not in her thoughts every day, nor, to be honest, is she in mine, but every time I look in my wallet I see a picture of her and think about her. I don't have any other children and it's a deep regret of mine that I've gone and lost the only one I had. It all comes down to my own selfishness. I just drifted away and by the time I realised what had happened there was too much water under the bridge.

"I feel very sad about what's happened and the worst thing is that there's absolutely nothing I can do about it. I can't push her into seeing me, I just have to wait until she's come to her own emotional awareness and wants to see me. Nor can I ever be a father to her; it's too late now and, besides, her step-father has done a far better job than I ever could. The only thing I can do now is hope that one day she'll contact me."

I'll never stop fighting

Robert, a 34-year-old engineer, split up with his girlfriend, Angela, in 1996. He has two children - a son aged six whom he hasn't seen for 18 months and a four-year-old daughter he last saw in October

"I WAS never married to the mother of my children and unfortunately I fell into the trap of not obtaining a PRO (Parental Responsibility Order). When you go to register the birth of a child they're suppose to point this out to you, but in my case no-one did. This means that since I've split up from Angela, I have very few rights and, even though I'm recognised as the biological father, I'm not allowed to obtain my children's school or medical records.

"The relationship ended in summer 1996, when Angela made allegations of assault against me. It went to court, but I was acquitted and she was shown to have lied. After that, she obviously decided the kids had to be dragged into it and declared that a child psychologist had said they were disturbed (later, she admitted that she was the one who'd been seeing a psychiatrist).

"In the latest court case, the psychiatric report stated that the mother's anxieties were disproportionate and bore no reality to what was happening or what the children were experiencing, yet despite this, the judge said that since the mother believed in these fears, I would have to wait until she had sorted herself out and was ready for me to see the children. It's totally absurd, because it means I now have to wait for her to have a change of heart and that's not likely to happen. Until that time I'm only allowed indirect contact, in other words all I can do is write them letters or send them cards. In the meantime, my children are too young to ask to see me, and besides, they would never do anything in opposition to their mother.

"If the children had said they didn't want to see me, then I could accept that, but the fact is, they miss their dad terribly. What annoys me most is that none of this complies with the Children Act, which states that the children's welfare is paramount. Also, Angela has stopped all my side of the family seeing the children and there's no doubt that these children are going to end up very disturbed.

"I'm a very motivated person and I won't let go, but there are lads at work who have cut and run, who haven't seen their kids for years, and my heart goes out to them. They feel a lot of anger and resentment about what's happened, but all of them regret not fighting. It's understandable, though: if you're dealing with someone like my ex, it's a very tough battle.

"I think about my children 24 hours a day and at times the pain has been unbearable, the longing so deep it's like walking into a blizzard with no clothes on. I can't stop myself from churning it all over in my mind. I'm a normal, healthy guy and yet it has sapped my emotion. It has sapped my strength and any desire I might have had, even to the point that sometimes I feel completely detached, as if the outside world is looking in but I'm not a part of it.

"I've worked hard not to feel bitterness or anger towards Angela. At least now I've felt able to start another relationship. It's taken me a long time to trust people, because there's always this nagging doubt. I think, at the end of the day, love will be stronger than anything they throw at me. The strange thing is that even though my ex is hell-bent on destruction, I reckon right will come out in the end. Ultimately, I believe that what you give out, you get back. I don't give up easily, even though I know there are many years of battle ahead."

She kept my sons from me

Jason, a 58-year-old civil engineer from Carlisle, broke up with his first wife in 1967. They had two sons. He married again three years later and had two more children, a boy and a girl. Both are now in their early twenties

"PEOPLE always sympathise when they hear about a mother who can't see her kids, but they don't seem to understand that men can feel just as much pain. In the end, I've come through it all by concentrating on the present and not getting caught up in the past. I try always to be extremely logical - perhaps that's why my first wife called me a cold fish.

"I had extreme problems in my first marriage and by the time the eldest boy was five, the relationship had totally broken down. I couldn't understand what had gone wrong. I'd sunk all my assets into the house and the family and now she was clearing me out for everything I had. It made no sense - I hadn't gone off with other women, I hadn't been cruel or unreasonable. Eventually, I was granted a divorce on the grounds of her conduct.

"I'd always played an equal role in bringing up the children, so when the divorce came through I fought for care and control of my sons in the High Court, but lost the case and was given 24 hours to get out of the house. My wife had always threatened that I wouldn't see the children and she kept to her word. For the next five or six years, I saw them on a very irregular and unsatisfactory basis.

"During that time I went back to the court on many occasions, to get contact access, and over my reluctance to pay maintenance. I know from a moral point of view and from the children's point of view, it is necessary to pay maintenance, but if you aren't allowed to see your child, you can't help thinking, why on earth should I pay.

"About six years after the divorce when the children were 9 and 10, I got a letter from my ex-wife's solicitor saying I was in maintenance arrears and that on no account should I phone, see or write to the boys. I immediately sought to have this changed in the court, but the court did nothing about it.

"It was then that I came to the view that if I continued to try and see them it would only cause them more distress. They lived very near and I knew that if they needed me they would come and find me. But they never did. I thought about them a lot over the years and worried about them, but for 16 years I had no contact, other than very occasionally bumping into them in the street, where we would chat briefly and then go our separate ways. The courts say that first children should be adequately provided for and that the next family should get whatever's left over, but I don't agree with that, especially since, in my case, I know there was enough money to go around for my two sons because they went to public school.

"On the positive side, my new family eased the pain and taught me a huge amount about the delights, pleasures and frustrations of fatherhood. Strangely, my first two children were model children and as a result I always thought I was a model dad, but my second two children taught me I wasn't such a bloody good dad after all.

"A few years ago, my mother died and all my children came to the funeral. In a way, that started a kind of healing process, although I doubt whether the rift can ever totally be healed. My eldest son is still vitriolic towards me, blaming me for what happened. He says if he was a father he'd have moved heaven and earth to try and see his children and can't understand why I let them go. If I try and explain what happened he only blames me for saying nasty things about his mother. My younger son is not so bitter. But my relationship with both of them is not an easy one - if you haven't been a dad for 15 years, you can't get it back again."

I was too young

James, 44, became a father when he was 20, but when the relationship broke up he lost touch with his son and daughter. He is now married to Pamela and they have two children, aged nine and seven. He works as a hotel porter in Manchester

"TO BE honest, I don't often think about my two elder children any more. I've been through every feeling since that time, from relief, to regret, to guilt. Now, having come through it all, it's as if that happened to another person. I don't tell many people I've got two older children because it puts me on the spot. I suppose I don't want people to think I'm a callous bastard.

"But maybe I am. At the time, however, it didn't seem such a bad thing. I thought I was doing right by everyone. I was young and I didn't know any better. I hated the idea of having any responsibility. I remember once my girlfriend was having a go at me for not having done the washing up (we'd been building up to a massive row for weeks) and I just said, "Right then, I'm off," and I left. I didn't get in touch for six weeks and when I did, she put the phone down on me. After that, even though I'd meet up with the kids in the park occasionally, I kind of gave up. I reckoned she was the one who wanted the children. So I justified leaving by telling myself I wasn't responsible for the children anyway. Also, I knew my girlfriend didn't want me around and since I couldn't pay my way I reckoned it was better to get out from under their skin.

"After that, I went to work in the North for a while and that was what finally did it. I was far enough away now to justify not seeing the children. For the next seven years I thought about them occasionally and at times felt very despondent about what had happened. From time to time I'd send cards but I never heard anything back. Then one year I tried to get in touch again. It was around Christmas time and undoubtedly it was a very selfish act on my part. I'd just split up with the woman I thought was the love of my life and I felt like shit. I wanted a shoulder to cry on and I was feeling nostalgic about the past. I suppose I wanted to make amends. It gave me quite a jolt when I realised that they had moved on and left no forwarding address. Of course I could have found ways to trace her, but I told myself it wasn't meant to be.

"When I met Pamela ten years ago, I was tempted not to tell her about my children, but then I thought they might come looking for me some day. For a while, it was quite a stumbling block between us, because she couldn't understand how anyone could walk out on their children. It took a long time for me to win her over - she was concerned, you see, that I wouldn't be a good father to her children.

"As it turns out, I think I am a very good dad. When Pam and I had our first baby, it made me think a lot about my other children. I realised that the intense love I felt was exactly the same as how I'd felt for my first child. Having children a second time makes me wonder where my other children are and what they're doing. Actually, I'm pretty certain they'll turn up one day and then perhaps I'll be able to make amends."

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