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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 16:59 GMT
How did system fail Austrian girls?
By Kerry Skyring
BBC News, Vienna

Magazine interview with Natascha Kampusch
The case is drawing parallels with that of Natascha Kampusch

The case has shocked Austria.

Three children locked away in darkness and filth by their mother for seven years and given little contact with the outside world.

The question Austrians are asking now: Did social workers fail to react despite signs the children were suffering neglect?

The case is also focusing attention on the dilemma of children when parents fall into conflict and divorce.

It is alleged the three girls, now aged 14, 18 and 21, were isolated by their mother in a house near the city of Linz.

Reports in local media say the house has just one electric light and no running water.

Social network

Details of the case first appeared at the weekend in a Vienna daily newspaper.

The publication Oesterreich reported that the children developed their own form of language during their years of isolation and that they played with mice and gave them pet names.

A mediator would mean that the children had a person with them through the divorce
Olaf Kapella,
Austrian Family Research Institute

The story has reminded many of the circumstances surrounding Natascha Kampusch, the young Austrian woman who was kidnapped at the age of 10 and held in a tiny cellar for eight years.

She escaped last August. Austrian authorities say the two cases are entirely different but politicians and journalists are asking questions similar to those raised in the Kampusch case.

How could this happen in a country with a strong social network and why did no-one act earlier?

Olaf Kapella, a former youth worker and now researcher with the Austrian Family Research Institute, said he could not understand why it took so long for authorities to act.

"I think something more could have been done earlier. For me it's a very important question in our society, with all of its institutions, that children can just be out of sight for such a long time."

The mother began the children's isolation by barricading herself in the house with them shortly after her divorce seven years ago.

The father of the children, a local judge, has told the media he does not want to comment as it "would not help anyone".

Welfare providers

However, Justice Minister Maria Berger has called for a review of the "social safety net" and suggested that children whose parents are divorcing could be provided with mediators.

This, she believes, could help prevent them being caught up in the conflict of the divorcing parents.

Olaf Kapella agrees with the concept of divorce mediators for children.

If a trained legal person cannot get to see his children, even though he has visiting rights, one has to ask, who is guilty here?
Newspaper blog entry

"The mediator would mean that the children had a person with them through the divorce, watching their needs and trying to help.

"And the child's voice will be heard in the whole process and everybody will know what the needs of the child are."

It is not clear whether a mediator would have helped in the case of these three children, but Austrians are seeing some political reaction.

As well as the justice minister's call for mediators, Josef Puehringer, the governor of Upper Austria, where the family lived, has called for the case to be investigated.

He said he did not want to lay blame - but "at the very least, incorrect assessments were made".

It is at the feet of those entrusted with making decisions about the welfare of children, the parents and social workers, that many Austrians are laying blame for the children's neglect.

Newspaper internet blogs reflect the sentiments.

One writes: "Of course the authorities are to blame... but if I were the neighbour I would have alerted the media."

Another draws attention to the father's attempts to contact the children.

"If a trained legal person cannot get to see his children, even though he has visiting rights, one has to ask, who is guilty here?"

The writer suggests it is Austria's legal system that is at fault.


SEE ALSO
New neglect case shocks Austria
12 Feb 07 |  Europe



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