Grim Fate Awaits Children Held in Cellar

A grim fate awaits the children imprisoned in cellar by their Austrian father.


May 1, 2008 — -- For the first 13 years of her life, "Genie" was confined to her bedroom, strapped to a toilet by day and bound in a sleeping bag under a metal screen in her crib at night.

Her only human contact was with her father, who beat her every time she vocalized, and barked at her like a dog to quiet her. By the time Genie was liberated in 1970, the child was nearly mute, uttering only a handful of phrases, including "stopit" and "nomore."

The girl was known for her "bunny walk," because she held her hands like paws, and her social interaction was limited to sniffing, spitting and clawing.

This American horror story, explored in the 2001 film "Mockingbird Don't Sing," bears a striking resemblance to another horrific case of abuse that played out in Austria this week.

Police learned that three children had been locked with their mother in the basement of their grandparents' home their entire lives, imprisoned by their 72-year-old grandfather. Although they spoke some German to authorities, the prisoners reportedly spoke to one another only in growls.

"It's as though they were kidnapped by aliens and woke up on another planet," Dr. Stuart Goldman, director of psychiatric education at Children's Hospital in Boston, told "The impact will be dependent on the age of children, and the younger are more likely to recover."

In addition to experiencing health problems, these children will struggle in their attachments to other people, language development and in their capacity for self-regulation, and in many other areas, Goldman said.

"A scientist can't predict because there are few valid comparisons," he said. "Sporadic reports are that feral kids have not adapted well."

While German doctors attempt to unravel the toll the abuse has taken on these children, Genie's case offers some clues. The so-called "feral girl" had the best psychiatric help and most devoted foster care, but she never overcame her wounds.

"Their forever is compromised," said Alice Honig, professor of child development at Syracuse University. "Genie was given every bit of love and lessons and experts in language development, but she never recovered."

The Austrian children were exposed to television but had no books or outside stimulation. "Learning cannot take place without human love and care and interactions," said Honig.

German psychologist Bernd Prosser agreed in an interview on Austrian television: "The four will never be able to live normal lives. I am afraid it is too late for that," he said.

Josef Fritzl, 72, imprisoned his now 42-year-old daughter Elisabeth for 24 years, repeatedly raping her and fathering her seven children. One died, three were raised upstairs with Fritzl and his wife, Rosemarie, and three others were confined to a three-room, cramped cellar with their mother.

Rosemarie Fritzl had reportedly been told her daughter had joined a cult and told police she knew nothing about the children downstairs.

Police found the sadistic lair after 19-year-old Kerstin, one of the children living in the basement, fell into a coma and Elisabeth persuaded her father to take the girl to the hospital. Hospital officials grew suspicious and called police, who made the discovery at the family home.

When the children emerged into daylight, 18-year-old Stefan made a squeaking noise and covered his face with his hands. Later, he made gurgling noises when he saw a cow.

"When the media write that the children speak, this is just half-true," said Austrian Police Chief Leopold Etz. "Among each other, they communicate with noises that are a mixture of growling and cooing. If they want to say something so others understand them as well, they have to focus and really concentrate, which seems to be extremely exhausting for them."

Not only is their language impaired, but all three children have defective immune systems and looked "terrified and terribly pale," according to police.

Kerstin, who is still hospitalized with kidney failure, has lost most of her teeth due to vitamin deficiency. Doctors are evaluating Stefan for hearing and sight damage. The entire family shows stooped posture due to the low ceilings in their underground enclosure. Felix, 5, crawls, rather than walks. He also sings to himself and startles easily.

Alan E. Kazdin, president of the American Psychological Association, who runs the Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic at Yale University, said the case is so complex there are "no clear answers" about the fate of the three children.

Old-fashioned theories suggest a child's development is fixed for life by the age of 5 or 6, but "all of that is wrong," according to Kazdin.

"There is remarkable plasticity in human beings," he said. "Not everything will be turned around, but there is brain growth at all ages and it is reflected in their ability to overcome these traumas."

Good psychiatric and medical evaluation, followed by treatment for the whole family is their best hope for healing.

"Separating them from their original environment adds to the anxiety," he said, recommending the family be kept intact. "The first priority should be their medical care."

With limited human contact, these children have not experienced "talking to people, seeing how other people get things solved in the world," according to Kazdin. "Language is not just talking. … It's the first step to thinking. It's those cognitive processes that help us negotiate the world."

Kazdin said it would be normal for children trapped in the "primitive society" of the basement to know only simple "yes," "no,' "leave me alone" and "shut up.

"You don't need 40 words for snow."

The American experts agreed that treatment needs to be gradual and predictable, assuring a "sense of safety" for the children. For now, the family is staying in a "treatment container that can be locked from the inside" to shield them from the outside world, according to European news reports.

Still, the lessons in the American case of Genie are disheartening. Her mother, who was blind, escaped from the father's clutches and sought help at a welfare center in California. He later committed suicide, and authorities took the child from her mother.

Genie received the best care in the country, according to psychologist Honig, who studied her case. Renowned psychologist James Kent became Genie's surrogate parent; the child also had a devoted team of medical workers, whose heroic efforts were compared to those of Annie Sullivan, who taught the blind and deaf Helen Keller.

Genie was eventually reunited with her mother, who could not cope with caring for her. The child was bounced around foster homes and later regressed. She now lives in a sheltered facility in an undisclosed location in Southern California.

In a Walter Cronkite report on Genie in 1970, Dr. Jay Shurley, a psychiatrist, said, "Solitary confinement is, diabolically, the most severe punishment, and in my experience, really quite dramatic symptoms develop in as little as 15 minutes to an hour, and certainly inside of two or three days. And try to expand this to 10 years boggles one's mind."

Still, Honig said the Austrian cases should not be treated as hopeless.

"We bother because they are human beings and God's children," she said. "These children deserve every effort to teach them."

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