After 20 Years, An Abandoned Wife Makes Her Ex Pay His Due

updated 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

As a 22-year-old Virginia housewife with a baby on the way and two toddlers, Patricia Gibson wanted only to raise perfect kids and to keep a perfect home for her husband, David. But on a hot August day in 1968, Pat's happily-ever-after dreams ended abruptly. That was the day David walked out on her, leaving behind, she says, almost nothing except a stack of bills and $50 in the bank. After Pat went to court to seek child support, David made two payments and then, several months later, vanished altogether.

That was 20 years ago. Since her remarriage in 1972, Pat Gibson has been Pat Bennett, but she has never forgotten the pain and humiliation she suffered because of David's desertion. "I loved him," she says. "I wanted him back. I was going to get my hair done and keep the house neater and try everything. No one in my family had ever divorced. We were devout Catholics. I felt I had failed."

Her plight was hardly unique. Today, an estimated 9 million women in the U.S. are raising children whose fathers are absent, and some 6 million receive either no child support or less than the courts have stipulated. In most states, criminal desertion and nonsupport are misdemeanors, like shoplifting, and a delinquent father can usually escape financial responsibility if he lies low until his children turn 18. Pat Bennett, though, was determined to be more than a pathetic statistic. She completed college, got a job and continued rearing her three young daughters. Then, 16 years after David's disappearance, Bennett tracked him down in Florida, where he was living under another name, with another wife and a son. Taking him to court, she won a landmark decision in December 1987 and was awarded 19 years of back child support. The Florida Supreme Court is expected to hand down a final ruling in the case this year. Meanwhile, Bennett's struggle, described in the book Runaway Father, by Richard Rashke, has been made into a TV movie of the same name, starring Donna Mills and airing on CBS in the fall.

As she tells it, Pat Bennett was a high school senior in Alexandria, Va., in 1962 when she met and fell in love with David Gibson, who was a year older and bound for Marine boot camp. Two years later, she left college to marry him. Their first child, Christine, was born in 1966, and shortly after that they settled in Miami. He trained for a job as an aircraft mechanic, and she worked as a secretary until the birth of their second child, Andrea, 14 months later.

Almost from the start, David began staying out all night. When his absences became unbearable, Pat packed up her daughters and returned to Virginia. He followed two weeks later,-promising to reform.

After David's pledges proved empty and he moved out, Pat obtained a court order requiring David to turn over half his paycheck—less than $50 a week—for child support. David stayed around long enough to visit Pat in the hospital when Marcia was born, but three months later he simply dropped out of sight. Forced to live for a time on welfare and food stamps, Pat was granted a full scholarship to George Mason University in Fairfax and, with the help of family, friends and neighbors, successfully combined her studies with single motherhood. The effort was exhausting. "There were many times when I thought I couldn't do it, but I have never in my life given up on anything," she says. "It's part of my family background; you finish what you start." In 1971 she graduated with an accounting degree and accepted a position with the Internal Revenue Service.

Although her husband was gone, Pat continued to take the girls to visit David's parents. During one of their visits her mother-in-law received a startling call—from a woman in Dallas who said that she had married David, then using the name James C. Parker, and that he had abandoned her too. While Wife No. 2 sought an annulment on grounds of bigamy, Pat filed for divorce and in 1972 married Eugene Bennett, an IRS staff attorney. They would part amicably 10 years later, but even as her second marriage was dissolving it was clear that Pat was still obsessed by her first.

Pat filed an official missing-person report on David with the FBI, but he was not located. On the assumption that David was dead, Pat filed for Social Security Administration death benefits for her daughters in 1978 but was turned down. Four years later the State of Virginia declared David dead at the request of his parents, and Pat asked Social Security to reconsider her earlier request. Then, in 1984, the agency allowed her to inspect its files on her ex-husband, and that was the opening she needed. By then a skilled IRS auditor with a keen eye for detail, she would prove herself a tenacious detective.

Over the next few months, there were countless phone calls and dozens of dead ends. Then Bennett discovered that Parker had worked as an insurance adjuster in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. A call to the Florida insurance-licensing office brought the long-awaited reply that, yes, there was an insurance man named James Parker. He was living in Tampa.

"Once I found him, I was in a panic," says Bennett. "I was afraid he would disappear again the next day." A private investigator was dispatched to take covert snapshots and confirm that Parker was, in fact, David Gibson. Then, in early 1985, Pat saw her ex-husband for the first time in 16 years when a Florida deputy sheriff—acting on the request of Virginia officials—brought Parker to the Pasco County Detention Center in handcuffs.

Through it all, Pat had worried how her daughters would react to meeting their father. Beforehand, Christine had assumed an outward indifference, Andrea was torn by conflicting emotions, and Marcia was anxious for the meeting. In the months after his arrest and release, each had the opportunity to talk with their father at length by phone, but they were disappointed and hurt by his attitude. "He never apologized," says Christine, now 22 and herself a mother. "He never said he was sorry."

For Bennett, the end of the search meant the beginning of a continuing legal struggle. Though a lower court in Florida has ordered Parker to start paying more than $148,000 in back child support, interest and legal costs, he appealed that decision. Bennett has no formal legal training, but she served as her own lawyer to argue her case last April before the Florida Supreme Court. "If I prevail," she says, "my case may help thousands of other women."

In one respect, though, Pat Bennett says that she has already been vindicated. "When I faced him across the courtroom," she says of her former husband, "he was a total stranger. He didn't matter to me anymore. What he did by leaving was to force me to survive. I had to do a lot of things I might not have done. I have more confidence than I've ever had, and that's a good feeling for someone who 20 years ago was afraid of her own shadow."

—Dan Chu, and Linda Kramer in Springfield, Va.

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