U.S. hit with class-action paternity suit Filipinos seek aid for sailors' children

June 21, 1993|By New York Times News Service

OLONGAPO, Philippines -- Next to her son James, what Lucia Villegas Hill prizes most may be a handful of documents identifying his father as a U.S. sailor at the Navy base that shut down here last year.

"He's so far away now," she said, handing over a crinkled 1975 marriage certificate and a faded photograph of a man whose features bore some resemblance to her son's. It has been years since Mrs. Hill's husband wrote or sent money, and she clings to a scrap of yellow paper with his last known address and phone number, in Port Orchard, Wash.

For centuries, women in diverse lands and cultures have been left to raise children alone after being abandoned by foreign soldiers.

But Mrs. Hill and thousands of others in this town next to the former Subic Bay Naval Station have taken a novel approach. Instead of pressing individual paternity or child-support suits, they have filed a $68 million lawsuit arguing that the United States has a legal and moral responsibility to educate and provide medical care for an estimated 8,600 Amerasians in Olongapo.

The suit, filed as a class action in March in the U.S. Court of Claims in Washington, argues that the Navy effectively fostered and regulated an elaborate night-life and prostitution industry, live-in arrangements and marriages here in which servicemen fathered thousands of children.

Mrs. Hill, for example, says she met her husband, also named James, in the Shamrock Club, a popular night spot here.

"I'm very sad because of what happened," she said. "But I still have hope, and No. 1 is for my boy to meet his father."

Many of the mothers subsisted for a time on sporadic payments from the fathers, pressuring Navy officials when payments lagged. But the financial support began drying up in 1991, when the Philippine Senate barred the renewal of U.S. leases on the sprawling naval base at Subic Bay and other installations in the Philippines. The United States had already decided that year to abandon Clark Air Base, its other major military site in the country, after it was damaged by a volcanic eruption.

When the bulk of U.S. ships and planes finally left last year, the decades-long party was over at the Pussy Cat Bar, the Joy Club and hundreds of other hostess clubs, discotheques, brothels, massage parlors and short-stay hotels with neon signs just outside the gates of the Subic base.

Like tens of thousands of Filipinos who had worked at Subic or Clark in maintenance, food-service or similar jobs, mothers who had supported their children by working in clubs near the bases suddenly found themselves unemployed.

"Nothing is being done to relieve the human damage which was done to those who were left behind, namely the thousands of forgotten children of American servicemen," the lawsuit contends.

The lawyer representing the women and children is Joseph W. Cotchett, a former Green Beret from Burlingame, Calif., who won an $8 billion judgment last year against Charles W. Keating Jr. and three co-defendants on behalf of 20,000 savings and loan investors.

Although the Navy has declined to comment on the issue, the suit on behalf of the children has stirred skepticism among U.S. military officials and some former GIs, who argue that U.S. taxpayers are not responsible for foreigners conceived by consenting adults.

Critics also argue that the children may have been fathered by foreigners who were not Americans and that some women tried to get pregnant in the hope of marrying or moving to the United States.

But talk of the missing U.S. "tatays" -- Filipino for fathers -- stirs up hurt, anger and yearning among women and children who meet regularly here at the Human Development Center, perched on a hill with panoramic views overlooking the old 14,400-acre base at Subic and the deep blue bay.

"I want to get to know him, and even though he left us here, I can remind him of his responsibility to help my studies," James Hill, 16, said of his father.

The departure of the U.S. troops and the emergence of child support as a national issue in the United States have helped focus attention on the issue. There is growing pressure in the United States to prevent absentee fathers from evading their obligations by crossing state lines.

"It is time to demand that people take responsibility for the children they bring into this world," President Clinton said in an address to Congress in February. The lawsuit quotes Mr. Clinton and argues that the issue crosses international boundaries.

The suit was filed against the U.S. government mainly because the Philippine women and children cannot afford the legal costs involved in tracking down fathers or proving paternity. The average income in the Philippines is $740 a year, making it one of the poorest countries in Asia.

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