Understanding the Abnormal : An Interview with Monika Niederle

The recent events in the little village of Amstetten in Austria took the neighbours by surprise and have been reported around the world. The incarceration of Elisabeth Fritzl and her three children by her father in a cellar over a period of twenty-four years is extraordinary, and it immediately throws up a dozen questions. How did Josef Fritzl do it? Why did he do it? How did no one find out?These questions have been in the international media since the story broke. The purpose of this interview, though, is to consider the pedagogical implications of the story. Monika Niederle was President of FICE-Austria from 2003-2007 and since 2006 she has been President of FICE-International.

Q It is reported that three of the Elisabeth’s children were adopted and brought up by Josef and Rosemarie Fritzl as if they were their children. It seems strange that this happened on three occasions and that the Judge accepted father’s story on three successive occasions. What is the normal process in Austria for the adoption of children? Which professionals are involved, and what checks do they make?

MN First of all, it was only the first child who, according to Mr Fritzl’s statement, was left on his threshold with a letter from the missing daughter, asking her parents to care for the grandchild, who was adopted. For child number two the “grandparents” had full parental responsibility, and for child number three they were foster parents.

And that is strange, as by law it could not be. By law you cannot be a foster parent for a relative up to the third grade of relationship; you have to have full parental responsibility. So legally there were only two options, either adoption or full parental responsibility.

This makes people think that the authorities must have been somehow suspicious about the number of children left on the threshold. Perhaps the police should have looked more carefully into the case, trying to find this “lost daughter”, living somewhere with a sect.

No DNA test was made to clarify that these three children really were grandchildren. Everybody believed that these two grandparents – well dressed, eloquent, successful – were obviously “angels”, as they were ready to take all the abandoned children of their bad daughter into their house.

The legal situation up to now has differentiated between the adoption of a child who is your relative and one who is not your relative. If the child is not, you need testimonials from all the family members; if the child is your relative you do not need such a testimonial. In the present case even a testimonial would not have helped. Mr. Fritzl was sentenced for sexual abuse but his offences had already been expunged from the criminal records, as they are considered spent five to fifteen years after the punishment, depending on the gravity of the case, and Mr. Fritzl’s earlier sentences were more than twenty years before.

Q Is there any concern in Austria about the adequacy of the usual processes?

MN Now there will be changes in the law, and discussions in Austria on the subject are very emotional. First of all – and this is not a matter of dispute – very soon authorities will be obliged to have the same procedure for any adoption. That means that they will require testimonials from the whole family and the near relatives for all adoptions, also for grandchildren, and it means an interview with a psychologist for all members of the family.

The second point of discussion is the legislation around sexual abuse. The mass media and politicians go for more and longer punishment. There is a discussion of having sexual abuse offences remaining in your records all your life. Some politicians on the right wing are proposing to forbid sexual offenders from living near schools and playgrounds, and are saying that police should make sure that those people do not get near playgrounds. It’s a pity that some politicians from small right wing parties are using this case to put out bad propaganda.

I suppose the outcome will be longer registration for old offences, heavier punishments, and hopefully more therapy. It will be forbidden for offenders to work in the child and youth field. (It is already banned, but there will be some strengthening of the law.) There will be a lot of preventative and educational work in schools to make children aware of what might happen, to ensure that they know where to get help, to help them know what is normal and what is not normal, and to reassure them that they need not be ashamed to seek help

Q Is there any evidence that the usual practices were not followed in this case?

MN Well, as I have said already, the Fritzls could not be foster parents of their own grandchild, and yet they were. So the question is: Were the authorities suspicious? Didn’t they believe that this was a grandchild? But why in that case didn’t the police do more to find the truth about that children? Why did nobody demand a DNA test to know the truth? There is no law to require a DNA test, but from today’s point of view one cannot understand why nobody asked for such a test. Our Minister of Justice says that there was no negligence in this case, but “a sort of credulity on the part of the authorities has to be thrown in”.

Q We hear that the children brought up in the cellar are now being cared for by a team of professionals. Can you give us any information about the sort of place where they are likely to be living, or about the people who are looking after them?

MN By now the family, mum, five children and grandma (child number six is very ill and in another hospital) are in a psychiatric hospital near Amstetten. They have several rooms and are shielded from other people. They have all the time they need to get to know each other; they can meet whenever they want, as they are living together, and they have support from psychotherapists, psychiatrists and psychologists.

No decision has been taken yet how long they will stay in that place. It will depend on what they want to do. The case is so unique that by now nobody knows how life will go on. The formal procedures will be completed fairly soon, as the three children who had lived in the cellar were not registered. They have to become Austrian citizens and the financial support available for this family has to be clarified. The problem of insurance has to be solved too, as non-existent persons don’t have health insurance. But these are only formalities and not problems.

Q From your knowledge of pedagogy, what sort of care and treatment do you think that the children need now?

MN This is a very difficult question because of the lack of experience. I think the most important thing is that they have to get away from being the focus of mass media and not to be treated as curiosities. They will need time and support to deal with what has happened and they will need a slow way into normality. They will need empathic therapists and psychologists who can help them to find their own way out. They do not need people who try to be part of that “case” only for their own vanity, and they certainly do not need the involvement of mass media who first of all want to sell as many newspapers as possible and to have as many people as possible watching TV by telling sensational news and facts without respect for privacy and consequences. But unfortunately that’s what happens now, on the part of the foreign media too.

Q Feral children brought up by wild animals have had difficulties integrating into the human community, but these children have had the chance to watch television and have learnt how to speak by living with their mother. What do you think will be the long-term impact on the children? Do you think that they will be able to learn to mix socially?

MN I think they have started already to interact with other people. For example, it was their wish to get in contact with people in Amstetten. They wrote papers with their wishes for their future and wanted them to be placed in a show window in Amstetten. These children have had social contacts for all their life, they had each other and they knew about other social communities, as they had TV. I think they will be shy, maybe easily frustrated, but when they get the chance to live a normal life without being always seen as “the children from the cellar”, they’ll make it. They have much more support now than many other children who also suffer cruelty, but whose cases are less sensational, so that nobody cares. The more normality, the better they will develop.

Q The case is so well-known that there is the risk that the children could be seen as objects of curiosity wherever they go in future. Is there anywhere in Austria where they would be easily accepted into a community without being treated as abnormal?

MN I don’t know, but I hope so. I just try to imagine these people coming into the small village where I am living – yes, they would get the chance for a normal life and a lot of support.

Q Is there any reaction among the public in Austria that the public services should have been aware of the situation or taken action?

MN Yes, there is. Influenced by the mass media, people think that the authorities did not investigate properly and took things too easily.

Q And how has the child care profession reacted to the news?

MN The first reaction of the responsible youth welfare office was that they had done everything that was necessary and that they never had even the slightest idea that something was wrong in that family. The reactions now from the trade unions of the social workers is that things like that can happen because there are fewer and fewer social workers having to deal with more and more cases. And in fact, that is true. The state wants to save money and social workers as well as social pedagogues do not have the proper time to deal with cases. It is easily understandable that social workers, seeing nice grandparents who are ready to take their grandchildren into their home, are very happy to have one fewer case to deal with and put their energy immediately into the next case, perhaps a child that is obviously abused and does not dare to tell the authorities or a child that is heavily beaten by its parents, or …

Q Finally, turning to Josef Fritzl, it is difficult to understand why he would want to lock up his daughter and then her children. Yet it is said that this is the third such case in Austria. What are the explanations being given in trying to understand the behaviour of Josef Fritzl and the others? We are told that he is a Nazi sympathiser and that Austrians were required to build cellars in the time of the Cold War. If these reports are true, do these factors have any bearing on understanding his thinking, or that of the other people who locked up relatives in cellars?

MN There are some such cases in Austria, as in other countries, but there are no more and no fewer than in other countries. There are people in Austria who are autocratic, as in other countries, and there are people who speak positively about National Socialism, but there are more such people in other countries.

Concerning the cellars, it sounds in the international press as if most Austrians have cellars to lock people up – that’s nonsense. There was a time in the 1960s and early 1970s when the media promoted fear of a Third World War which would be an atomic war, and later a fear of nuclear power stations all around. A very small number of people built small cellars to survive in such a case, but, in fact, I do not know anybody who has such a cellar. It was more the building trade that promoted such cellars. There is no connection between those cellars and the “Austrian cases”.

Thankyou, Monika.

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