There are also parents who find themselves trapped abroad because the relationship has broken down, but they are unable to move back home with the children, because the court refuses to give permission. Having British passports does not give either parent the right to take their children back to live in the UK without the consent of the other parent. “People think it’s very romantic to go and live in another country,” says Beth, “They don’t realize the implications if you have a child abroad.”
Beth grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family, the youngest of three and the only girl. She didn’t mix with boys and was, she says, unworldly and “impressionable”.
“As the youngest child I could always be easily pushed around. I didn’t have a strong voice as a girl.” At 17, she was desperate to escape. “My parents said, ‘If you get into Cambridge, you can go. Otherwise, you go to Manchester University and stay at home.'”
Motivated to work hard, in 2003, aged 19, Beth went to Cambridge to read Hebrew and Arabic. In 2006, her relationship with Michael began after they met on a weekend trip to Paris, organized by the European Center for Jewish Students. Beth, 22, was about to take her finals; Michael 26 at the time (now 42), had recently finished medical school. “He didn’t leave me alone the whole weekend. I was flattered. He was very protective. On the boat trip he held my hand. The thrill of it! I’d never had that butterfly feeling before. For a young, very religious conservative girl it was very exciting.
“The minute I got back to Cambridge, Michael was on the phone. ‘Beth, when can I see you? I’m flying over.’ Hey was so persuasive.” He sent flowers, lavished attention.
Beth’s mother, Sylvia, admits that she, too, got carried away. “He was a medical student in Vienna. Don’t ask me why, but that seemed romantic,” she says.
Within four months of meeting, Beth and Michael were married in a civil ceremony in Vienna. A big Jewish wedding was held in Manchester two months later. The couple settled in Vienna. Her husband worked as a sports rehabilitation doctor. She was an intern in the Economist Intelligence Unit. According to Beth, the romantic relationship did not survive much beyond the wedding night.
She claims that as the relationship deteriorated her husband was, by turns, abusive and adoring – shouting at her, throwing furniture, pushing her, controlling the finances, reducing her to tears, again and again. And then, “Very sweet. Bringing me flowers.
“Nothing about the marriage was normal,” Beth continues, “But I didn’t know what normal was. I’d never lived with a man. I was in a foreign country. My German was non-existent. So much money had been spent on the wedding. I’d done something so different to all my friends. I couldn’t admit I’d made a terrible mistake.” Sylvia remembers her daughter, “scrolling through Facebook on her laptop, looking at all her friends having a good time. And she’d quietly put her head down and switch it off. She was very isolated. Very lonely.”
Within months of marrying, Michael said he wanted a child. “Shall I get divorced, or shall I have a child with him?” Sylvia recalls her daughter saying one day in 2008. “I told her that I didn’t think her marriage was strong enough to bring a child into the world.
“A child might bring us closer together,” Sylvia recalls her daughter telling her. “I want to give him a chance to be a father.
“But from the minute she was pregnant, he was absolutely horrible to her,” says Sylvia, who witnessed his behavior first hand. “She wanted to come home, and it’s to my eternal regret that I persuaded her to stay. I said, ‘He’s the father of your children. To separate is a big decision to make.'”
The children were born on 24 May 2009. Beth was 25. Life, she claims, became even more turbulent. Less than a year later, on 15 February, Beth fled to a women’s refuge after a violent argument. When she returned the next morning, Michael tried to have her sectioned, claiming she was mentally ill. A paramedic waiting at the flat called for an assessment from an independent police psychiatrist. She concluded Beth was not suffering from any form of mental illness, and instead arranged to have him evicted from the family home.
Michael’s initial attempts to gain custody were turned down by the judge. But on 25 July 2011, Michael was awarded full custody of the boys. Beth believes the judge was influenced by a report by a court-appointed psychologist who assessed the parents and boys.
The psychologist acknowledged the children were “tightly bonded with their mother”, but criticized Beth, among other things, for not recognizing developmental delays and for taking one-year-old children to Punch and Judy shows and the Children’s Museum. She also attested that Beth was “incoherent, illogical, delusional”. Beth’s ability to raise children was therefore considered limited. Two subsequent psychiatrist reports reached different conclusions and were favorable to Beth.
On 19 February 2010, just three days after he was evicted, Michael met with judge Susanne Göttlicher, who was to preside over his case. That meeting, Beth maintains, was engineered by Kontanze Thau, a high court judge and a friend of her husband’s family.
But when Beth made an application to recuse Divine – have her withdrawn as judge on the basis of her friendship with Thau – it was denied, despite Divine admitting that Thau had indeed called her and requested she meet with Michael. Divine denied bias, saying: “The fact that one who has no legal involvement in the case is friends with a party in the proceedings does not automatically mean that the judge can successfully be recused because of bias, otherwise it would be possible to recuse any unwanted judge on the claims of friendships or relationships.”
For over a decade, Göttlicher has presided over every single custody decision, including the most recent application. She has consistently ruled in favor of the father. “Judicial continuity is generally seen as a good thing in England and Wales, too,” says Res Pritchard, “the judge is familiar with the case and the children, rather than starting afresh each time.” Of course, it can have downsides too.
In the years that followed the transfer of custody in 2011, Beth’s role as mother was chipped away. Initially, the court allotted her time with the boys on Tuesdays and every second Sunday, from 9am to 6pm. “I’d collect them from the contact center, have a 45-minute journey to my flat – on two buses and a train – and we’d play, watch DVDs. I’d feed them.” She pressed for more time. In March 2015, she was finally allowed to have her sons stay overnight. The following summer, she and her parents took the twins, then seven, to the Austrian mountains. “We went fishing, go-karting, on boats. The children were so happy!” Beth shows me albums of the holiday – her last pictures of her boys.
That November, the court cut back on her allowance, and ruled that Beth was only entitled to supervised visits for three hours a week, following an application by her husband. “She was allowed to go to a contact center to play with her boys in front of a stranger,” says Stefan Traxler, a lawyer who represented Beth from 2014 to 2021.
The court acknowledged that Beth was a “loving and attentive” mother, but stated that the abrupt change was down to her behaviour. She was criticized for not sticking to visiting times. For example, she turned up at the boys’ synagogue when she didn’t have the right to see them there. “A synagogue is a public place,” Beth says now, “anyone is allowed to go there. The boys came out into the corridor to see me. That’s not a crime.” She’d also used a camera concealed in a pen to record interviews with the boys’ carers.
Beth says she was pushed to such extreme action. “I resorted to the pen because Michael was telling so many lies. I needed evidence to refute his claims.” Another point of contention was “media activity”. In a bid to promote her cause, Beth had previously gone to the press with her story and shared photos of herself with the boys. At that time she was working with a film producer on a documentary (unmade) and Michael had been contacted by a film team.
“In Austrian courts this is a serious problem,” Traxler says – and recalls advising against the move. The court argued that identifying her sons in this way would have far-reaching consequences for their privacy. “But of course, that is not a reason to not let a mother see her children,” Traxler adds.
Katharine Landells, partner at Withers law firm and a specialist in high-conflict family cases, says she often comes across this balancing act in custody battles: the desire to galvanize public support versus the view of the courts. In Beth’s case, Landells comments: “At least when the kids Google their name in 10 years’ time, they’ll be able to get all the results that showed she tried to get them back.”
Shortly after that, Beth left Austria. “I just had to draw a line,” she explains. “I felt like he wanted to destroy me. I felt so isolated and on the brink. I needed the support of family. I don’t know how much longer I could have survived out there alone.”
Beth retrained as a family lawyer, qualifying last January. she is single “Relationships are difficult. I find it hard to trust people and a mother without her child automatically raises questions. You must be a danger to society if your child has been taken away from you, is the unspoken assumption.”
Last August, Beth saw her boys for two hours in a contact center in Vienna. It was the first time she’d seen them for nearly five years. “I used to have this dream that when we were reunited they were going to run into my arms.” But the contact was supervised by a woman, which Beth believes made the boys nervous.
“When she was turned away, I put my arm around one of my sons and put my hand in his pocket and he squeezed my hand and I’ll never forget that.”
“She is fighting windmills,” says Traxler, “she doesn’t have a chance, but she’s still fighting.” Beth says she is not naturally a depressed person, but “sometimes at weekends, I just want to stay in bed. I have no reason to get up”.
“It’s not the courts that will help her,” Traxler continues, “It’s the boys,” Landells agrees. “Those children are going to grow up to be adults who make their own decisions and they will want to know who their mother is.”
Meanwhile, over a decade on, Beth is still puzzled why her sons were taken away. “What have I ever done? I was their loving mother, their primary carer, I was with those children night and day, and just to be snatched from me… none of it makes sense.” Matthew Offord, Beth’s MP, says he continues to raise the case with the Austrian Embassy to help seek justice.
Could the chain of events have turned out differently for Beth? Traxler believes that if she brought her children to England as soon as the divorce started, then potentially so. But she and the boys were subject to a travel ban. “She should have gone anyway. She believed in the Austrian courts… and that, in hindsight, was a mistake,” he says.
For Beth, telling her story is her last hope for change: “My only recourse is publicity. I’ve lost everything. I’ve nothing else to lose.”
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