The New Year in Switzerland began with a chilling tragedy as reports emerged that a young mother had killed her two children, aged two and five, rather than see them return to care. The case has sparked massive criticism of the recently reformed child protection authority.
Under Swiss law, the identities of suspected or convicted criminals are not revealed by the media. Instead the 27-year-old woman at the centre of the story is being referred to as Nathalie K. and photos of her with her children have been published with the faces blurred.
Since the incident, which happened on January 1 in the family home in the village of Flaach near Zurich, the child protection office in charge of the case has received numerous threats and has been placed under police protection, as reported by Swiss public radio and televisionexternal link. On Wednesday Zurich police arrested a man for making death threats.
The Swiss child protection system underwent large-scale reform two years ago when decision making in child welfare cases, which used to take place on a local level, was transferred to a more professionally-based structure at cantonal level.
Nathalie K. killed her children on the evening of January 1, while they were at home for a two-week Christmas visit. Earlier that day she had received the news from her lawyer that an appeal to have the children returned to her care pending a definitive decision about their welfare had been rejected.
The children were initially taken into care on November 4 when their parents were arrested on suspicion of fraud. Nathalie K. was released without charge within a week. The authorities said there had been separate reports of concerns about the children’s welfare.
Sadly, cases where parents take the lives of their children are not unknown in Switzerland, but this tragedy has generated extraordinary reaction, with new voices joining the chorus of outrage daily. Comments on social media have been predominantly critical of the authorities.
A Facebook pageexternal link calling for the scrapping of the new child protection authority, referred to by the German acronym Kesb, is posting regular updates on the Flaach case. Many commenters have had adversarial contact with Kesb.
One person referred to reports that the family had moved house several times. “Who cares how often they moved? Excuses and nothing more than hot air. Close Kesb immediately and scrap it. They are lining their pockets while deciding the fate of other people,” he wrote.
Almost a week after the tragedy, the background to the case is still being discussed in the German-language press. In the Aargauer Zeitung, under the headline ‘She seemed totally normal to me’external link, Nathalie K.’s lawyer Daniela Fischer described how she hadn’t noticed any deterioration in her client’s behaviour since they first met on December 18.
That was their only face-to-face meeting before the children’s deaths but the two were in regular contact and Nathalie K. “always sent me any information I needed within one working day. Everything was going smoothly,” Fischer said.
The Blick tabloid newspaper has reported in-depth on the tragedy every day since the story broke, its latest offering being, ‘the final hours before the tragedy’, in which the children’s grandparents describe the time they spent with Nathalie K. and her children on the day the children were killed.
(“She seemed composed and radiated unbelievable calm” – the hours before the drama.)
The grandparents have been very vocal about their frustration with the child protection authorities, claiming in a letter to newspapers that the authorities “hounded mother and children to death”. Their repeated attempts to have the children handed over to their care, from the first day of their parents’ arrest, came to nothing.
Three days after the children’s deaths, their grandparents appeared in this Swiss television report, where they spoke of their disbelief and showed the bedroom they had prepared for the children.
However, the TagesAnzeiger newspaper makes the point that it was the mother who killed the children, not the authorities. “The Flaach case clearly shows how difficult the work of the protection authorities is. To attribute shared guilt to them for the death of two children is wrong,” Zurich editor Liliane Minor wrote.
“A tragedy is being used without scruples to discredit an unpopular protection authority with the result that the office in question is now under police protection. That cannot be excused,” she added.
(“It was the mother who killed, not the authorities. An analysis of the #Flaach case.”)
Writing in the Beobachterexternal link magazine, Walter Noser took a similar stance, defending the work of the child protection authorities which, he claims, are snowed under trying to bring their caseload up to date. Noser said that it was regrettable the office in question had no emergency service in place over the Christmas holidays.
In an interview published in the Zurich-based Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper on January 6, child protection expert Christoph Häfeli claimed there was a communication problem in the Flaach case. He criticised the lack of support available to the mother in her hour of need.
(“Poor communication the main weak point in the #Flaach case. An interview with KESB-advisor Christoph Häfeli.”)
On Tuesday it was reported that the mother admitted killing her two children. She remains in a psychiatric hospital where she is also being treated for self-inflicted wounds. The father of the children is still being held on remand in relation to the fraud case.