His 10-year-old son was fighting cancer.
His 14-year-old daughter is a special-needs child coping with all the challenges of Down syndrome.
His 17-year-old daughter, once an A student, is struggling at school and depressed.
His 19-year-old son has substance abuse problems and is currently on a methadone program.
Last fall, after an Ontario judge awarded his ex-wife spousal and child support of nearly $4,000 a month, Hans Mills, an education software expert with extensive work contacts in Southeast Asia, sent Donna Mills an email telling her he had left Canada for good.
“The result of the legal instrument which you recently designed and implemented is that there is no possibility of a comfortable life or a (secure) retirement for me in Canada at all,” Mills, 53, wrote in the email dated November 2, 2011. “Therefore I have left the country to seek greener pastures elsewhere, and will never return. Well done Einstein.”
“Good luck and goodbye.”
With that missive sent from an unknown location, Mills joined the more than 120,000 parents in Ontario who are in arrears on spousal and child support payments. Collectively, they owe more than $1.8 billion to ex-wives and children.
This is a story about a marriage breakup, a protracted legal battle and the decision of the ex-husband to flee Canada and avoid his court-ordered duty.
The Star tracked Hans Mills to the Philippines. From his hideaway on the outskirts of Manila, Mills says he knows what he did is wrong. He blames a “broken” Family Court system that pushed him to the brink of ruin for his decision to cut and run.
“I did a terrible, awful thing, because I had no reasonable option,” Mills says of his decision to flee and stop making spousal and child support payments. “I miss my children terribly. I abandoned Canada, but not my children. My hope is that some day I can reconcile with my children, but not in Canada . . . a morally bankrupt state.
“The Philippines is about as far as I could go. If I had a spaceship I’d be much further away.”
At the time he absconded, Hans Mills was under court order to pay his ex-wife, Donna Mills, $2,235 per month for the support of their children and $1,537 a month for spousal support. He also had been hit with substantial retroactive payments and ordered to pay his ex-wife’s legal costs.
His kids are “innocent bystanders who got caught in the crossfire,” Mills says in his email to the Star. “It was not my intention to hurt them.”
He is adamant about two things — he will “never, ever, ever, ever” pay spousal support, and he will never return to Canada.
That is bitter news for Donna Mills, who has spent the past eight months urging Canadian authorities and Ontario’s Family Responsibility Office (FRO) to find her ex-husband and force him to comply with the court order.
The day after she received the email, Donna Mills’ lawyer sent the Family Responsibility Office, which enforces court orders for support, a fax urging his arrest, but Mills was already out of the country.
“Financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, I am approaching bankruptcy,” Donna Mills said in an email she sent the Star asking for help in locating her ex. “If I go down, the kids go down, and I can’t let that happen.”
The story is complicated by the house Donna Mills and the children live in. The imposing home, on a large lot backing on Lake Ontario near Hamilton, is valued at about $1.2 million, but has a $600,000 mortgage on it.
The couple split in 2005. A deal was finally brokered after a two-day trial and on May 1, 2008, both parties signed the Minutes of Settlement. Donna would have sole custody and stay in the house with the children while Hans paid child support. Donna would pay Hans $175,000 to buy him out of the matrimonial home.
In subsequent court pleadings, Donna maintains she was “rushed and pressured and did not read” the documents before she signed them. She said she did not understand she was signing away the right to any future spousal support, even if her circumstances changed.
“Donna got the million dollar lakefront mansion and full custody of the children with child support, but no spousal support, in exchange for the house,” Hans Mills writes. “Everyone at the time agreed that my spousal support obligation had been met fully.”
He notes the deal also provided Donna with a built-in revenue stream because the house contained a separate apartment that was rented for nearly $2,000 a month.
Over the next few years, a feud simmered between the once-happy couple. Three years after their “Final Order,” all kinds of issues had arisen about the kids and Donna’s inability to work, and a new trial was scheduled for the fall of 2011.
According to Donna Mills, her ex-husband took her to court three times and at one point tried to foreclose on the house. With her bills piling up, Donna Mills says she used this as an opportunity to ask a court to grant her spousal support.
In June 2011, a judge issued a “Temporary Order” for Hans to pay spousal support, also awarding her both retro payments and court costs. Stung by the order, Hans left Canada before the new trial could take place.
“I was effectively ordered to pay for my crucifixion. Ouch. Plus I still had to pay my own lawyer,” he writes. “Having been buggered once left me no appetite for a second serving, thank you very much.”
So he sold his house, cashed in his pension, paid his bills, and took off.
He left behind an ex-wife who says she is unable to work due to onerous family responsibilities — looking after four kids, three of whom have substantial medical needs, especially Steven, who has just finished two years of cancer treatment.
“I am not receiving any financial support from my former spouse,” Donna Mills says. “I don’t have life insurance or benefits. The house is the only thing that I have left. My RSPs are quickly dwindling and failure to sell the house in a timely fashion will lead to foreclosure.”
In addition, Donna Mills says she had to borrow another $122,000 through a line of credit on her mother’s house to buy out Hans. “I came away from this with no money.”
Hans Mills now lives in Dasmarinas City, about 50 kilometres south of Manila, with his new wife, Rosemarie Espiritu, a former caregiver he met during his frequent business trips to southeast Asia.
He would not submit to a personal interview but agreed to answer written questions.
His furtive exit from Canada was a “purely tactical response to an untenable situation.” A classic “fight or flight” brought on by a spiteful ex-wife, an unjust Family Court system and the FRO that descended on him like a pack of wolves, he says
He accuses his ex of “using Steven’s disease as a weapon against me, which I find most repugnant.” As far as he knows, Steven’s cancer has been conquered, or is in check, and his eldest, Tom, is an adult, and no longer a dependent child of the marriage.
“She is simply lazy and does not want to work,” Mills says of his ex-wife, adding that the toughest decision of his life has left him exiled. His mother and brother live here in Ontario, as do most of his friends.
“I live in the Philippines for Heaven’s sake . . . this is not a country club. I have to keep a loaded shotgun beside my bed at night in case of attack, of which there have been several.”
He has not yet found greener pastures “but I can see one from here.” In the Philippines, he is beyond the reach of Canadian laws, he says, and the FRO is a “paper tiger” that can do him no harm.
Donna Mills, 51, was once a teacher. She argues her role as primary caregiver during her 22-year marriage forced her out of the traditional work force. She once held down three jobs to make ends meet, but caring for the children consumed all her time.
Besides the $800,000 debt she says she carries, she owes 2 ½ years in back taxes on the home. Her only source of income is the $2,500 monthly she gets for her two youngest from the Assistance for Children with Severe Disabilities branch of the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.
Hans Mills says his ex-wife’s claims of hardship are exaggerated and “designed to squeeze more cash out of me by appearing pathetic and helpless.”
One thing is certain.
When he left Canada last fall, Mills left behind a 10-year-old son who had just completed two years of cancer treatment.
Diagnosed with Wilms tumour, a cancer of the kidneys, at age 8, Steven underwent surgery to remove a 1.4-kilogram tumour that entailed removal of his left kidney and adrenal gland. The latest tests show him to be free of cancer, but he will be tested every few months for the next year.
Mills said she always knew her ex-husband would flee to the Asian subcontinent where he had worked extensively during the past 15 years, and where he met his future wife.
She implored the Family Responsibility Office to try and stop him from leaving, asking that a lien be put on his house in Grimsby, and to seize his passport, but the FRO did not move on those requests. Mills, a Danish immigrant, has both a Canadian and European passport.
Hans Mills was granted a probationary visa by the Philippines government last December, with his common-law wife as his sponsor. The two have since married.
According to the FRO, Hans Mills is more than $28,000 in arrears and his debt to his family is growing at $3,772 a month, plus interest.
“The unfortunate reality is that some parents simply refuse to support their children, while others cannot afford to meet their court-ordered obligations,” said Annette Phillips, director of communications with the Community and Social Services ministry.
The FRO has reciprocal agreements with all 50 U.S. states and some 30 countries, including Fiji and the Cayman Islands, but none with the Philippines.
The agency has a number of weapons at its disposal to force deadbeat parents into compliance, including garnisheeing of bank accounts and income tax returns, placing liens on properties and suspending driver’s licences and passports.
In some cases, the FRO will resort to shaming the deadbeats by posting their mug shots on a special website called goodparentspay.com and asking the public to inform on their whereabouts.
Donna Mills says she is not out for revenge, but to make her ex honour his obligation to his children.
“When we split up, Hans left everything. He never even asked for a photo of the kids,” Mills said, showing off an array of cards from the children he left behind. “It is grossly unfair what he has done to his children. He has scarred them for life.”
Hans Mills, who has a BA in economics from the University of Toronto, has held a number of sales and marketing positions with e-learning companies. At the time of the breakup, Mills averaged a yearly income of more than $100,000.
His LinkedIn account posted on the Internet lists his current position as a partner in Hannover Asia Inc., a Beijing-based company that is registered in Delaware. In the email to the Star, Mills says he does not a have full-time job, but is doing some consulting work for the local Filipino government.
Eight months since he last heard from his dad, Mills’ son Steven was eager to open a package that had just arrived from the Philippines in advance of his 11th birthday. Steven’s face dropped and tears welled up in his eyes when he saw its contents: dried banana chips, cassava chips, caramel popcorn and salted peanuts.
The birthday card accompanying the dry goods said: “Dear Steve, I hope you have a wonderful birthday. Love from Dad.”
“Why would I want this from my deadbeat dad?” the youngster said. “If he really cared, he’d be here.”
If divorce was less punitive more spouses would stay in Canada. The system has made it impossible to have a reasonable, supportive relationship with the children.
Shame on the courts. It’s always the men who pay. Never the women.