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Malta's Josef Fritzl?

"Our mother had to steal in order to bring us food." Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

"Our mother had to steal in order to bring us food." Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Claire* was abused by her father, grew up in institutions and does not know what it means to have a home. Her son has cerebral palsy and her husband stole her benefit money.

A few months ago, the world winced as it learnt of Joseph Fritzl, the 73-year-old Austrian electrician who committed indescribable atrocities on his family members, locking them in underground cellars and abusing of them in unimaginable ways. Claire's story bizarrely and horrifically has parallels with this story.

When she was just two, Claire was rushed, naked, to the police station, and saved from joining the rest of the members of her family who were all victims of their cruel father's abuse.

"My father was downright mad. He used to shoot videos of his family laughing and talking, supposedly having fun, to send them to relatives," Claire says.

Claire is a stunning 24-year-old with long, wavy, brown hair and Indian American features. She has a relaxed kind of beauty, and her soft-spoken manner disguises the horrors she has witnessed. Wearing jeans, a brown top and shiny gold belt, she pushes her four-year-old son Peter* in his pram into the YMCA drop-in centre. Peter has cerebral palsy and requires an immense amount of care and treatment every day.

Claire has been living in institutions ever since she was two. She does not know what it means to live in a homely environment.

Her family constantly suffered under the cruel reign of the father. "He used to take the children's allowance and sell toys to get money for himself," Claire shudders. "Our mother had to steal to bring us food."

The public was horrified at footage of Fritzl on a beach holiday. Their father's activities mirrored the Austrian in that he led a parallel life abroad while leaving his family at home in misery. "Our 'family' never had a home, but our father had a house in England. He kept us away from everything and kept everything for himself."

Of a family of 11, four girls and seven boys, eight members survive. She says the three deaths were all in some way related to the father's actions. One of Claire's sisters fell out of the window, in what she believes were mysterious circumstances.

Another of her siblings was born a blue baby. Their father left it outside one night to die. The third to die was her brother, who suffered an overdose at home.

Her mother passed away too, after suffering a heart attack. Claire is convinced this was a result of her father's abuse. To make matters worse, "(her) mother was an American Indian, she didn't live in her country and felt like a fish out of water, with no one to help her, no one to understand her".

Claire's father often used to lock his wife in her room, fill her with alcohol and pills and then abuse the children.

"My brothers and sisters were abused in every way imaginable, sexually, mentally, physically... One of my sisters was abused so often and so badly, she cannot ever have children."

If they didn't obey their father's orders the children were punished: they were locked in a room and left without food to wallow in their excrement and urine.

Not only did he abuse them himself, but he used to instruct the other children to abuse their siblings.

Claire never had any friends at school. She was teased because she was gay, which added to her sense of insecurity. "I found it difficult to trust anyone. I always felt alone. I had no stability," she says.

The state intervened, abrogating the rights of the parents in order to become responsible for the children and help them have a better life.

They were placed in separate institutions according to age. Other than her older sister, with whom she was placed, Claire doesn't know her siblings, though says she later met a boy who turned out to be her brother.

Unsurprisingly, family relationships are practically non-existent after the trauma all her brothers and sisters experienced - though Claire gets on with her older, 26-year-old sister who sometimes helps her with the baby.

Although she had a female partner, Claire married at 20 for financial reasons. She is in the process of separating from her legal husband, and is trying to find a place of her own. Her primary aim is to give her son Peter the security of a home.

Despite her past, she is positive and wants to protect her son. "Peter has given me so much satisfaction. I could have dumped him and left him, but I chose to keep him, he's my flesh and blood. It's exhausting, but I'm very proud of him. Anything my partner and I can do for him, we do. I feel a sense of pride as a mother."

Claire hopes to settle in her own place by September, to have the stability of a fixed address to be able to plan where to send Peter to school, and to get a part-time job. "I want my son to have a home. I don't want him to go through what I did."

"The institutions were something I experienced; they're not for Peter." She looks at life through the eyes of a mother who wants to give her all for her son. "I want to do things as a true mother. My son gave me the willpower to face life in a positive way; he's so cuddly and is such a happy child. I will never abandon him."

Claire and Peter are currently living at YMCA Homeless, Dar Niki Cassar, which is ready to help people in such plight. Those who wish to help and pledge support or would like more information may visit www.ymcahomeless.org, call 2122 8035 or e-mail info@ ymcahomeless.org. To make a donation of €4.66 (Lm2) send an SMS to 5061 8088, or for €11.65 (Lm5) send an SMS to 5061 9212.

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

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