After a tortuous four year battle in the family courts, the Supreme Court of Austria last week rejected my final appeal for custody of my twin boys, Samuel and Benjamin and awarded full and final custody to their Austrian father.
My 3 year marriage irretrievably broke down when the twins were just 8 months old. My husband, a trainee doctor, was evicted by the police from the family home in February 2010 after he fabricated a medical diagnosis to have me sectioned. Luckily my life was spared by a suspecting paramedic who called for an independent psychiatric assessment. No evidence was found of mental illness and the father’s plan to separate me from my babies was thwarted. Deemed a danger to me and the children, he was given just five minutes to pack a bag and hand over his keys. As he was escorted away by the police, I breathed a sigh of relief. I no longer had to live in fear, I rejoiced! He was issued a restraining order. My children and I were safe at last! The next day I applied for a civil divorce and sole custody of the twins. The father defended the divorce and cross petitioned for divorce on his own grounds. In a surprise move, he also applied for sole custody. Since he only had fully supervised access to the children for a whole year after that, his chances seemed slim to non-existent.
Yet, as the court process advanced, the reality dawned that keeping my children safe with me would not be the foregone conclusion I had been told to expect. Instead, I found myself entangled in a Kafkaesque trial of bizarre and surreal proceedings that deviated far from the law as I knew it. I suddenly found myself a mother on trial.
The father was prepared to go to any lengths to fight and destroy me, the mother of his children. All ploys were used by him and his hawkish lawyer (a childless woman) to psychologically, emotionally and financially break me. Everything I said or did, however innocuous by normal standards, was turned on its head and used against me to portray me as unfit, irresponsible, irrational and insane.
The judge and the court psychologist colluded in this legalised abuse. My lawyers used every legal, rational, emotional argument but still, to their shock and disbelief, I lost everything; an outcome that went against every principle these good, honest lawyers spent their entire careers defending. From being the children’s full time carer for 18 months who had never spent more than a few hours apart from my darling boys, I am now reduced to one day a week with my children and alternate Sunday visits. I pay 44 Euros to pick them up from a visiting centre and bring them home for a few precious hours of joyful reunion. After which I must bring them back and hug them goodbye, not knowing who cares for them in between visits, what they do when I’m not there and what they learn in school. They can barely talk and so cannot tell me. When I lamented all this to the judge she replied; “Well actually, Frau Schlesinger, you have no right to any information because the father has full custody.” I am denied overnight and weekend visits.
Losing your children feels like losing a part of yourself. You cannot function in the same way again. Learning how to survive and cope with the daily pain and sense of profound loss is not something you can prepare yourself for. I am a mother in absentia and have had to significantly adapt to my new role. I cannot cook healthy meals for my children, bath them or read them bedtime stories as before. Instead, I spend my childless time mustering the energy and resources to expend in our limited time together. My mission now is to cram our visits with as much love, fun, laughter and security so that they leave with positive happy memories of their Mama and want to return. Seeing how eagerly they run to me at the beginning of each visit and how their faces light up when our eyes meet reassures me that I’ve succeeded and fills me with hope that one day this dark cloud will clear. We may have been denied justice but nobody can deny our love for one another.
When I tell people our story, they immediately know it is a Jewish story. The father is Viennese, a member of the Jewish community who grew up here and has friends in the right places; a Jewish High Court Judge, a Jewish psychiatrist and colleague, the head of the Chabad kindergarten, as well as his Rav and mentor with strong influence over the members of his kehilla. You would expect the community here to have joined ranks to prevent a chillul Hashem and deescalate the situation. If the leadership were courageous and compassionate enough perhaps Sammy and Benji would have been spared this needless endless suffering. If only the leaders had intervened at the very beginning when I begged them to mediate to find a solution outside the courts. But for reasons I may never understand, they allowed this whole sorry mess to be dragged through the courts for the eyes of the whole world to see and censure. There is nothing more tragic and embarrassing than seeing Jew against Jew.
I may now have exhausted the Austrian courts but the case is far from over. The British Government is holding a parliamentary debate this week in the House of Commons. Ambassadors, international lawyers, policy makers and human rights organisations around the world are fully informed and highly concerned. After studying the decision of the Appeal Court, Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush said “a serious miscarriage of justice has occurred” and called the decision “a stain on the reputation of Austria.” We cannot and will not rest until justice is done.