“Will I ever get my twins back?”
When Beth Alexander, now 29, moved to Austria with the man she’d fallen in love with, she thought it was the beginning of a wonderful new life. But the Cambridge University graduate soon discovered the whirlwind romance was not what she’d hoped for.
Her relationship with her husband Michael, 33, quickly disintegrated, and when they eventually separated, they became locked in a bitter custody battle over their twin boys Samuel and Benjamin, now almost four.
Beth had no doubt the boys would be put in her care – Michael had already been evicted from the family home. But a single report arranged by the judge concluded that she was suffering from mental health problems. As a result, the boys were placed in the immediate care of their father, and Beth now sees them for just ten hours every week.
Last month, Beth who works as an English language teacher, handed a petition to the Austrian embassy to try to get her sons back. Here, she speaks to new! about every mother’s worst nightmare…
“‘Samuel, kick your legs as high as the sky!’ I shout as I push my twin sons on the swings together. ‘Benjamin, can you do the same?’ The boys shriek excitedly. Their laughter is infectious and, for a rare moment, I’m heady with happiness.
“The park near my home in Vienna is full of young families enjoying the spring sunshine together. I try to imagine my life is like theirs, that I’m having a simple day out with my children who I’ll later tuck up in bed.
“But this fantasy is interrupted by my phone beeping in my pocket. It’s an alarm telling me I have one more hour before I have to return them to a soulless visitor centre where they’ll be handed back to their father.
“This daily torture is not the life I envisaged when I fell head over heels in love with Michael back in 2006. We met on a student trip to Paris when he was a trainee doctor at the University of Vienna and I was reading Oriental Stuthes at Cambridge University.
“Michael was handsome and intelligent and wooed me with his exotic accent and similar Jewish background to mine. Within days we’d both expressed our love for each other. I realise now how naive this was. I was a 22-year-old virgin and I’d never had a boyfriend so these feelings were new to me. Before that, I had been focused on my studies and ambition to be a broadcast journalist.”
“I abandoned my career plans for love and our whirlwind romance culminated in a big white wedding eight months later. My parents begged me not to go ahead with it, but I didn’t take their advice. Soon, I’d given up my place to study tor a master’s degree at a prestigious university in New York and moved to Vienna with Michael.
“The change in him was instant. Within days he became cold and would grow angry over the smallest of things. I had no friends or familly nearby and knew very little German. I felt miserable and isolated.
“But despite the struggle, I didn’t believe in divorce and was determined to make it work. I fell pregnant, naively hoping a child might heal the problems in our marriage.
“Holding my newborn twins Benjamin and Samuel in my arms in May 2009, I felt all the motherly love in the world. I thought that surely these little bundles of joy could get us through the bad times. But it seemed that Michael showed little interest.
“By the time the boys were eight months old, Michael’s anger became more than I could bear and I felt frightened all the time. In February 2010 I called the police as I feared for my safety.
“A week later, I went to a refuge for the night because he locked me out of the house. To my horror, when I came home the next morning, I was met by a policeman and paramedics. Michael had used his medical knowledge to have me sectioned.
“Thankfully, one of the paramedics saw through his story and brought an independent psychologist to assess me. She found I was totally sane and, to my relief, Michael was immediately evicted from the home.
“The eviction gave me the courage to finally stand up for myself. We went through divorce proceedings and I went for full custody of Benji and Sammy. Michael was granted only supervised access for a few hours a week and the children were instantly more settled. Michael challenged the supervised access decision weeks later, but his application was denied. He then continued to try for full custody.”
“As a part of the process, in the summer of 2010, the boys and I were called for psychological analysis. To my horror, the judge who asked for the tests later explained the psychologist had concluded the boys were ‘retarded’ because they knew fewer than 200 words at just 16 months old. Previous reports from our family GP, the boys’ playgroup and social services had concluded they were developing well, so I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The report also called me ‘paranoid’ and unfit to be a mother.
“In June 2011, I faced a gruelling cross-examination in a ten-hour hearing, during which the defence tore me apart. Silent tears fell down my face as the judge accepted criticisms that had no truth behind them. I was told I was an unfit mother for unthinkable reasons – for example, because I didn’t read stories properly and didn’t know how to insert a suppository. Even my choice to take them to a puppet show was mentioned.
“I was at a play centre on July 25th, 2011, when social services rang and broke the news that the court had ruled that Michael could take over full custody of our sons, and I had to hand them over immediately. I panicked, scooped up the twins and ran. But Michael was waiting at home with four police officers carrying guns in a scene straight from every mother’s worst nightmare. He tore the children from my arms as they screamed. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.
“My lawyer did everything in her power to reverse the decision. But I was denied all contact with my sons. I went back home to Manchester for a few months, in a daze. My family were all in pieces.
“After two months I was given a pitiful ten hours access a weeks and I returned to Vienna. The first time I saw my sons was bittersweet. I was relieved to hold them but they looked so withdrawn and frightened. When I had to hand them back they were hysterical. I still have nightmares about that first meeting.
“Since then, I’ve lived a life of misery. I can’t break down — I have to be strong for the few hours I see them — but it’s so hard. I fill our short time together with love and laughter, taking them to the park and to their favourite places to eat. But the minute I hand them back I cry and cry. Sometimes I feel I have no tears left in me. It’s hard to get through each day and hold down my job as an English teacher.
“Sadly, the boys’ development has slowed. They are still in nappies and can barely talk, despite being almost four years old. I believe they are traumatised by the ordeal.
“The court has since commissioned a new report which concluded I have never suffered from mental illness. Two other reports in my favour have been seen by the judge but no new hearings have been called.
“A Facebook group set up by a friend has gained 7,000 supporters and officials in Austria criticised the case. My brother also started a petition calling for both governments to investigate the case and it’s got almost 3,000 signatures. Last week, it was shown to the Austrian Embassy who passed it to authorities in Vienna.
“The case is growing in momentum but all the while I’m missing precious moments of my children’s lives. I’ll fight until the bitter end, until they’re back in my arms.”