Easy Living Magazine


Please sign this PETITION and urge others to sign.


By Angela Epstein



Please sign this PETITION and urge others to sign.


“Nothing will STOP ME trying to get my KIDS BACK”

Nearly two years ago, Beth Alexander’s twins were taken by her Austrian husband in the middle of a bitter divorce. As the number of cross-border custody battles increases, she reveals what it’s like when a mother’s worst nightmare comes true.

The tram was packed with commuters. Hot tears streamed down my face as I struggled to get the double buggy on board, and strangers looked on in embarrassment or curiosity before turning away. Why did no one help? Probably because the buggy was empty – I must have looked like a lunatic.

What they couldn’t’ know was that only half an hour earlier, my three-year-old twins, Benjamin and Samuel, had filled those seats, and I’d just handed them back at a soulless visitor centre, via an intermediary, to their father. I go through this gut-wrenching routine every Tuesday at 5 pm when my weekly allocated hours come to an end.

Home, an apartment in Vienna, is no comfort — without my boys, it’s deafeningly silent. Sometimes I think that I can’t bear another day, but I force myself to focus on the next time I’ll be with them and on my fight to get them back from my ex-husband.

I’d always imagined my Future would be as a mother at the centre of a loving family – like the one I grew up with in Manchester. I studied at Cambridge University and was planning a career in journalism when I met Michael on a weekend in Paris in 2006. I was a few weeks from graduating, but he swept me off my feet. A 26-year-old junior doctor, he was charming and handsome with an exotic Austrian accent. I was a naive 22-year-old virgin who had never been in a serious relationship.

What began as a fling soon escalated. Within three months, Michael had proposed and I’d agreed to settle down with him in Austria — a country I didn’t know, with a language I couldn’t speak. My parents begged me to wait, but I couldn’t. Vienna wove its magic and I fell for it.

The moment we married in November 2006, the connection I’d Felt between us vanished. In hindsight, I suppose it’s not surprising that something that started so quickly should fall apart just as fast. Back then, I spoke no German, had yet to make friends and felt utterly isolated. I was ashamed that my whirlwind romance had turned into a failure, but coming from a traditional Jewish background, divorce is anathema to me, so I was determined to make it work.

Despite everything, I got pregnant. When my babies were born in May 2009, life had real meaning again. But by the time they were eight months old, my husband’s rages had become extreme and I was going deeper into my shell. At one point, I called the police. A few days later, I fled to a refuge for a night. That seemed to antagonise Michael — he said I’d never see my children again and tried to have me locked in a mental hospital. He brought police and paramedics, but one of the paramedics saw through him and stopped it. In fact, the police psychiatrist got Michael evicted. That’s when he went to court to get full custody.

In summer 2010, a judge sent us to a psychologist to determine who should have custody. Following two meetings with the children at 14 and 16 months old, the psychologist declared they were ‘retarded’ because their vocabulary was fewer than 200 words. Then, to my astonishment, because of my accusations against Michael, she also concluded that I was paranoid.

The Following June, her report went before a court. During a ten-hour ordeal, I listened through an interpreter as my capabilities as a parent were picked over. When the psychologist described me as an irresponsible mother, my lawyer had to hold me back from protesting. “This is madness,” I kept thinking. “Surely they’ll see through it.”

On July 25 2011, I was with the boys at a play centre when social services called. The court had ruled in Michael’s favour and I was to hand the children over immediately. I froze, barely able to breathe. Since we’d split, they had spent no more than two hours at a time with their father, but there would be no adjustment period. Before anyone could ask what was wrong, I fled the play centre.

What happened next was like a scene from a war movie. I arrived home to find Michael waiting with four policemen. When he grabbed the children, the horror on their faces was agonising. I tried to soothe them, but before I could say goodbye, they were gone. I remember howling in pain, as if my heart had been ripped out.

The next few weeks passed in a blur. While my lawyer worked frantically to reverse the decision, I was denied all contact. In despair, I went home to England, a hollow, aching wreck. I went over the reasons why the judge could have made this decision. Would things have been different if I’d not been in a foreign country, fighting in my second language? Before, my days had been punctuated by the boys’ meal times; now I lost my appetite. Michael ignored my emails, but a friend in Vienna told me the children were being looked after by various babysitters.

Having not seen them for two months, I was finally given access to the boys for a few hours a week. I had no choice but to accept this crumb while I continued I to fight the custody order.

The first time I saw the boys, I was horrified. The trauma was so clear on their faces: they looked lost, frightened and washed-out. They didn’t want to play or eat and just lay in my arms. Benji, in particular, had been such an adventurous little boy, but both had become nervous and insecure. When it was time for me to hand them back, they became hysterical and wouldn’t let go. I had to force myself to turn my back on my own children and walk away. I sobbed all the way home and had nightmares for months — I still do.

One of the most upsetting events to miss was their first day in kindergarten. I’d registered them with a lovely one, where the staff encourage the mothers to stay with their children until they’re happy to be left. What a contrast to the boys’ experience! The week after I lost them, their father put them in a different kindergarten. I emailed asking if I could be there on their first day and his lawyer replied that if I showed up, Michael would call the police.

Since then I have had to adjust to a new reality. When the children are with me, I try to fill their world with fun. We go to the park and bake together. But every time they’re taken through the cold, grey doors of the visitor centre for the handover, the pain is excruciating. Financially, too, it’s been a struggle. Before, I was a full-time mother and their father paid the rent and bills. Now, I have huge legal bills to pay, but I’m so grateful to my parents for helping me to find my feet. Last summer, I qualified as an English teacher and now teach part-time at a university in Vienna.

Being in the flat surrounded by their things is bittersweet. I’ve kept everything as it was so it would be familiar to the boys. The reminders are painful, but help me to feel connected to them. I keep buying them new clothes in preparation for their return. One of the oddest things is that I’ve never seen them in pyjamas, as they were in baby grows when they were taken — they’re now nearly four. I bought Fireman Sam pyjamas in anticipation of overnight visits that, so far, the judge has not allowed. In fact, she reduced my Sunday visits by an hour because their father argued they were too long. Meanwhile, our case rumbles on. Thankfully, the court commissioned a new report, which concluded I’ve never suffered from mental illness. Three reports now lie before the judge – two in my favour – but no new hearing’s been scheduled. My friends have set up a Facebook campaign, which now has almost 7,000 supporters, and that has helped keep up my strength, as has the fact that even lawyers in Austria have criticised the handling of the case. Most days I’m on automatic pilot, counting the hours until I can hold my children. Nothing will stop me fighting until they’re with me again.

Please sign this PETITION and urge others to sign.


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