Single mother Claudia Payne reaches into her purse and pulls out a worn copy of her 9-year-old daughter's birth certificate and the I.D. card of the child's father, a U.S. airman.
Setting them on the table before her, she unfolds a tale of the human cost of the U.S. withdrawal from Panama last year that ended a rambunctious century-long marriage of convenience.
Payne, 40, is one of hundreds of Panamanian single parents stranded with sole care of school-age children as U.S. military and civilian worker fathers headed back stateside.
Since her child's sergeant father packed up his kit bag and headed for Texas ahead of the handover of the U.S.-built Panama Canal at the end of last year, the money transfers have tailed off and contact ended.
"He used to send $100 through Western Union for a while, but then that stopped. I have to buy clothes for the kids and take care of their schooling. Without my mother I don't know what I would do," Payne told Reuters.
Forced to move back with her family to help with child care, Payne also wants the father to recognize the couple's second daughter, who faces the added stigma of illegitimacy in a conservative Latin society.
"His name isn't on my youngest one's birth certificate and I want him to recognize her," she said with a wan smile. "It's more difficult for a child with only half an identity."
HUNDREDS OUTSIDE CHILD SUPPORT NET
The often-turbulent love match that began in 1903 with U.S. sappers who started work on the Panama Canal ended with the handover of the shimmering waterway on Dec. 31. But the question of child care remains unresolved.
In the wake of the U.S. departure from Panama last May, Panama's Foreign Ministry opened a telephone hotline and an e-mail contact address to reach out to single parents seeking to register claims for child support.
In the six months since it opened, the office has fielded around 1,500 calls from mothers seeking to lodge formal claims for support for school-age children fathered by U.S. civilian and military personnel. Almost all of the cases processed by the office come from the capital and the Caribbean city of Colon, alongside the former U.S.-controlled Canal Zone that was handed back to Panama under the 1977 canal treaties.
Sifting through the evidence of carefully kept birth certificates, the ministry has documented 658 cases of Panamanian children now of school age born to U.S. fathers.
While many are the fruit of happy marriages between Panamanian women and former soldiers and civilian workers during the final years of the U.S. era in Panama, the office says more than half have been dumped by absent fathers.
Run by the U.S. government for more than 85 years, the Panama Canal Commission began forcibly deducting child support from Panamanian and U.S. employees' paychecks following a court ruling and 1988 accord.
IN SEARCH OF A BILATERAL ACCORD
But with transfer of the waterway at the end of last year, the only bilateral framework in place for awarding child maintenance disappeared, leaving single mothers and dependent children unprotected by any international accord.
While Panama signed on to the Organization of American States-backed Inter-American Convention on Child Support last March, following five other regional states, Washington has yet to ratify it.
The U.S. State Department has negotiated with more than 30 countries to establish the enforcement of reciprocal child maintenance agreements, and accords so far signed include Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Portugal.
But in spite of a close relationship stretching back to the separation of Panama from Colombia in the early years of the 20th century, the two countries have yet to hammer out a bilateral accord on child support.
"We want to find a way to make both the collection of child support and the recognition of paternity easier and more efficient," Foreign Ministry General Secretary Maria Alejandra Eisenmann told Reuters.
"At the end of the day what interests us as a government is protecting children (by) giving them the right to an education, a name and food."