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The story you didn’t hear

The Facebook message Paul sent to his son Raphael on February 26 read: “Missing you”. There was no reply from his 17-year-old son, who lived with Paul’s estranged wife. Two days later, the father sent another message to his son, “Hi Raphael, I just want to know if you’re OK or not. Can you contact me in some way? Hope to see you soon!”

This information didn’t fit in comfortably within the pre-set media narrative
- Claire Bonello

Some days later, Paul had still not heard from, or seen his son, despite the fact that the contract of separation signed by him and the boy’s mother, laid down that he was to have four access hours twice a week. Eight hours a week was not much, but Raphael’s mother insisted on sticking to the letter of the contract.

“Hi Raphael, just wondering if you’re OK or not. It will be wonderful if you send a message. Take care,” was Paul’s next message to his son on March 6, followed by “Hi Raphael, would like to hear from you. Please write or call me,” a week later. Complete silence from Raphael’s end.

‘Raphael’ is not his real name, but a pseudonym for the boy in the eye of the media storm whipped up recently when his mother was imprisoned for not allowing his father to see him. She has since been granted a Presidential pardon and walked out of prison declaring that she was going to “try to forgive”.

The public hailed her as a victim of a draconian judicial system, uncaring judges and a father bent on extracting his pound of flesh.

Xarabank featured a moving clip of a silhouetted Raphael pleading for his mother’s release. And the pardon was given the Peppi Azzopardi seal of approval, which after all is the highest form of approval in this country, with the President having a bit part in rubber-stamping the pardon. The general feeling was that a 17-year-old who refused to visit his father, could not be forced to do so – least of all by his mother who was absolutely powerless to drag a big, strapping lad to see a parent if he didn’t want to.

This conclusion was based on the premise that Raphael didn’t want to see his father and did everything he could to avoid him. But the evidence on record and Raphael’s evidence given in court and during mediation sessions, do not present a picture of a boy who refuses to have anything to do with his dad.

All the trilling about the courts ignoring children’s wishes, are off the mark. In this case, the court did heed Raphael’s testimony. The court also considered other factors, many of which seem to have been ignored or brushed over lightly as nearly everybody climbed on board the ‘Beat the Bullying Dad’ bandwagon.

For example I don’t recall reading about the hundreds of other text messages from the father, which remained unanswered as he tried desperately to get in touch with the son he hadn’t seen since Christmas Day of the preceding year. That hadn’t been a very happy occasion either. Paul and his family were gathered around the table waiting for Raphael to join them, just as he did every year and as per contract.

They waited and waited and Raphael did not turn up. The anxious father phoned Raphael and asked if there was a problem. The boy replied that he didn’t have a lift up. His father immediately drove over to pick him up.

On their way up, Paul’s mobile phone rang. It was the police ordering him to take his son to the police station at once as his mother had lodged a report. Instead of digging into Christmas turkey, father and son spent some three hours at the police station. When the policewoman asked Raphael where he wanted to go, the boy replied that he wanted to leave with his father. However, even as he left the building his mother started objecting again.

Following that debacle, Paul did not see his son for six whole months. He was not given any notice or reason for his son’s absence. He finally got to see his son after a court order. Then followed a period of about a year when Raphael would not turn up for meetings with his father. Often his father would not be given notice beforehand.

One time, when Raphael did not turn up, Paul phoned his estranged wife’s home. No one answered. When he called again, he was told Raphael was sick but heard him shouting in the background saying, “I didn’t cause these problems”. His son eventually made it over that day. He was not sick at all.

The separation contract stipulated that Paul would not exercise his rights of access if Raphael had an exam the following day. Raphel’s mother interpreted this to refer to all types of tests – even class tests in all the academic subjects.

Raphael’s mother refused to allow this. Or rather, she insisted that the coaching would take place during the access hours, even if other students were present. So much for quality time.

One time Paul and Raphael planned to go to Gozo together for a couple of days. On the day of the trip, his mother phoned Paul saying that Raphael did not want to come. She doesn’t want Rapahel to wear any clothes given to him by Paul or his family.

Paul says she makes sure that his son doesn’t meet him by accompanying Raphael on the bus, to ensure that he is meeting friends and not his father.

When Raphael went to Gozo to meet Paul this summer, without telling his mother, she found out from friends and took him to the police station to report him. So much for heeding the wishes of a 17-year-old.

In the week before the appeal hearing, Raphael and Paul had worked on the wiring of Raphael’s room at his father’s house and gone around different shops getting quotes for new bedroom furniture to put in it. Again, that’s hardly the behaviour of a son who can’t stand his father, is it?

But this information didn’t fit in comfortably within the pre-set media narrative, where the story which was being pushed was of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who didn’t want to see his dad.

And so we saw the sad saga unfold with a son caught in a painful tug of war between warring parents, where every uninformed reader threw in his two cents’ worth about insensitive courts dismissing children’s wishes and with the ultimate confirmation that Peppi power is supreme.

The one question that was never answered by any of the people bleating on about injustice, is how to enforce the continuous breach of the law (in this case access was denied on 18 occasions) when all the discussion, mediations and last chances prove to be useless.

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