Beth Schlesinger: ‘I still hope that a miracle will bring my boys home’
You can read the article online here
A British mother of twins is suffering in Vienna what an MP calls ‘one of the worst miscarriages of justice’
Inside a first-floor flat in central Vienna, a mother is reading her twin boys a story. Snuggled together in their bedroom, the four-year-olds, skin still pink from a hot bath, cling to the woman as she points at pictures and puts on different characters’ voices.
The scene appears no different from those that play out every night in family households all over the world, except for one detail: it’s the middle of the day.
Beth Schlesinger, 30, a solicitor’s daughter from Manchester, sees her sons so rarely, and misses them so desperately, that when she does get time alone with them she frequently gives them a bath, draws the curtains and reads them a story, just to recreate the bonding routine of bedtime that most mothers take for granted.
Thanks to an Austrian family court judge, who has awarded full custody of the children to Mrs Schlesinger’s estranged husband, the petite Cambridge graduate has not put her boys to bed at night-time for almost three years. And yet her former partner, Michael, was deemed so violent and unpredictable at the time of their separation that social workers recommended not only that Mrs Schlesinger be granted sole custody, but also that, on the occasions the father had access to the twins, he never be left alone with them.
The alteration to that original decision has been described by one British MP as “one of the worst miscarriages of justice” he has experienced in nearly 25 years as a politician, and by another as a “blight on the Austrian judicial system”. It has raised serious questions about the impartiality of the judge on the case and hints at a sinister conspiracy that spans both the Austrian Landesgericht (Court of Appeal) and the social services.
More worrying still, it appears that the twins’ development is suffering in their father’s care. Only recently out of nappies, the boys, Samuel and Benjamin, are still unable to talk, three weeks shy of their fifth birthdays.
“It’s like a living grief,” says Mrs Schlesinger, sitting on the edge of a couch in her front room, opposite shelves stacked with puzzles, soft toys and sticker books. “I’m mourning my children, but it’s kind of a perverse mourning because they’re still alive. I know they’re alive and I’m so close to them – I’m just down the road – and yet I can’t see them or play any meaningful role in their lives.”
Like all brides, Mrs Schlesinger began her marriage with high hopes. The youngest of three children from an observant Jewish family based in Crumpsall, Manchester, she met her former partner during a student weekend in Paris, just a few weeks before her finals at Girton College, Cambridge, in 2006.
Four years older than her and recently qualified as a doctor in his home city of Vienna, Michael struck Beth, who had never had a serious boyfriend, as sophisticated and charming.
“He wooed me and flattered me,” she says now. “He then came immediately to visit me in Cambridge and London.”
It was a whirlwind romance. As soon as her exams were over, she went to meet his family in Vienna. Her parents flew out a few days later; by the end of the week, Michael had proposed. They were married (despite the reservations of her parents) later that same year.
“I loved my wedding day,” she says. “I was ecstatic. My brothers sang. I thought I’d won the lottery – I’d married this handsome doctor from Vienna. We were going to have this lovely life together.”
But things turned sour very quickly. During the honeymoon, according to Mrs Schlesinger, Michael complained of feeling unwell and spent most of the time outside the hotel, avoiding her. When the couple got back to Vienna, where they set up home, he continued to act coldly towards her and the relationship went from bad to worse.
“There was a car park behind our building. I used to run there and just cry for hours,” she says. “But every day I used to hope it would get better.”
Finally, in a desperate and, some might say, naive attempt to rescue the marriage, Mrs Schlesinger agreed to try for a family. She became pregnant almost immediately and discovered in a scan 12 weeks later that she was expecting twins.
The children were born healthy and, during their first few months, reached all their developmental milestones. But their arrival did nothing to repair the relationship between Mr and Mrs Schlesinger. In fact, the tensions between the couple grew worse.
Finally, in February 2010, after an argument over the children during which Mrs Schlesinger says her husband physically assaulted her, she fled her flat and sought refuge in a women’s shelter. When she returned early the next morning, her husband, furious that she had “abandoned” him for the night, accused her of irrational behaviour and said a psychiatrist had agreed to have her committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Paramedics duly arrived with four police officers. But it quickly became apparent that the psychiatrist, a friend of Mr Schlesinger, had never met Mrs Schlesinger and had been willing to have her committed on the basis of a conversation in which Mr Schlesinger had told him that his wife suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
The police summoned their own psychiatrist to the flat to assess Mrs Schlesinger and, after being informed that she had no mental-health issues, changed their plans. Instead of taking Mrs Schlesinger to hospital, they ordered her husband to leave the flat. He was issued with a restraining order.
Devastated by her husband’s behaviour and at the end of her tether, Mrs Schlesinger filed for divorce. The children remained in her full-time care. Mr Schlesinger was allowed to visit them three times a week for two hours but had to be supervised at all times, a rule endorsed by a social-services report that stated he was a “danger” to the children.
In normal circumstances, Mr Schlesinger’s abuse of his doctor’s credentials and attempt to have his wife committed under false pretences – thus separating her from her children – would have excluded all possibility of him ever gaining custody. And, in fact, the case judge, Susanne Göttlicher, rejected an application by Mr Schlesinger for custody in April 2011.
But, just three months later, Judge Göttlicher reversed her decision and placed the children into his full-time care.
“That day was the most horrific day of my life,” says Mrs Schlesinger, her voice cracking with emotion. “I was at a play centre with my babies, completely unsuspecting. I got a phone call from social services: ‘Be home in 10 minutes, the father is coming to take away the children. There’s a court order.’
“I just screamed: ‘What are you talking about?’ It was a complete shock. All the professionals had said there was nothing wrong with the children in my care.
“I fled to the British embassy for help, but the consul was away, there was no one there and my lawyer was away on holiday. I had no one to turn to.”
Later that day, she was forced to hand the twins over to Mr Schlesinger. “He came with the police and the children were taken away screaming,” she says.
She was then forced to wait eight weeks while the court decided on visiting rights, during which time she wasn’t allowed to see her children. Today, she is permitted to see them for just six hours every Tuesday and once every other Sunday.
Anxious not to antagonise the Austrian authorities, Mrs Schlesinger initially dissuaded MPs in Britain from speaking publicly on her behalf. But after the failure of numerous appeals, including a final appeal to Austria’s Supreme Court, she is now hoping that the Government will make direct representation to the Austrian government.
In January, Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton, Mrs Schlesinger’s parents’ constituency, brought the case to the attention of the House of Commons in an adjournment debate and called on the Minister for Europe, David Lidington, for assistance.
“This case is Kafkaesque,” he said at the time. “That is an overused word, but what has happened to Beth Schlesinger defies normal understanding. Authorities have taken decisions about her life and her children’s lives which are inexplicable and certainly unjust. “I have the greatest respect for the Austrian state… but the decision in [this] case is a blight on the Austrian judicial system and I hope that it will be put right.”
In particular, Mr Stringer and other supporters of Mrs Schlesinger point to two troubling aspects of the case. The first is a report by a psychologist that seemed to echo Mr Schlesinger’s false allegations about his former partner’s mental health, and also blamed Mrs Schlesinger for failing to spot development delays in her children.
Despite the assessment by the psychologist, Ulrike Willinger, being carried out in German, Mrs Schlesinger only had a translator for part of the test. She has also, subsequently, been given a clean bill of mental health by three highly qualified psychiatrists who have all confirmed she is of sound mind.
The children’s so-called developmental delays were diagnosed after measuring against a benchmark for two-year-olds, even though Mrs Schlesinger insists they were tested only twice – once at 14 months and once at 16 months old.
“Willinger diagnosed her as psychotic which is total nonsense,” says Marianne Springer-Kremser, professor of psychiatry and neurology at the Medical University of Vienna. “She wasn’t qualified to make such a diagnosis; she had the wrong background and the wrong experience.
“She also characterised the children as severely disturbed. The children might have had certain retardations, but the picture painted by Willinger was over the top. The tests were not appropriate for such small children.”
What’s more, Prof Springer-Kremser says Willinger has failed to assess the father and his interaction with the children since July 2011. “That was a major omission,” she says. “There is no excuse for such a poor report.”
She is also scathing of the judge, who, she says, failed to give equal weight to another expert, a neuropaediatrician who had a far more moderate opinion of the boys’ development.
“The way the judge acted was incredible,” she says.
The decision is regarded as so inexplicable, in fact, that Mr Stringer and others suspect the judge has been unduly influenced. It is a matter of record that, very soon after Mr Schlesinger was evicted from the flat, he sought the help of a judge from the Court of Appeal, Konstanze Thau, who is a friend of the family. Judge Göttlicher has admitted that she has discussed the case with Judge Thau.
“At the very minimum, there appears to have been irregular and unprofessional behaviour,” says Mr Stringer.
Ivan Lewis, MP for Bury South, the neighbouring constituency to Mr Stringer, who has taken a close interest in the case, goes further.
“There is no doubt that there has been inappropriate intervention in this case by another judge who is a personal friend of the father,” he says. “It’s following that intervention that the judge on the case started making decisions that were incredibly supportive of the father.
“We know that Thau has had private conversations with the judge. It’s extremely sinister. Thau is not objective – she is a family friend, she has an interest.”
Playing together in Mrs Schlesinger’s flat last Sunday, Benjamin and Samuel displayed obvious affection for their mother. They hugged her spontaneously and giggled as she chased them around the living room.
But it was also obvious that both of them now have quite serious language delays. Due to turn five later this month, neither spoke a full sentence, in either English or German, while I was present. Mrs Schlesinger has been told that the boys, when not at kindergarten, are in the care of Filipino nannies who speak neither language.
“Every day that this drags on is another day of damage to the boys and another missed day of their childhood; time we can never get back,” she says. “I am tortured with questions: who is with them? What are they doing? Who puts them to bed at night or reads them a bedtime story – if at all? I have no way of knowing what their lives are like.
“The past four years have been one long journey through hell – all sanctioned and directed by those in the highest positions of authority and trust. But I will not crumble.
“I cling to the hope that justice will eventually be done, or that a miracle will bring my boys home. That is all I have to keep me going.”