Fraudster parents of sick girl jailed for charity scam

A father who caused an uproar in Spain after he used his daughter's rare illness to raise money for mainly personal use was sentenced to five years in jail, court officials said Wednesday.

Fraudster parents of sick girl jailed for charity scam
Nadia with her parents in an appeal photo.

His wife was also jailed by the court in the northeastern city of Lleida for three-and-a-half years, they added.

The case of the young Nadia Nerea, who suffers from a potentially life-threatening genetic disorder, moved the country several years ago when her father Fernando Blanco went from one media outlet to another to publicise her case.

Considered a hero, Blanco, 53, had asked for donations to allegedly help pay for a pioneering operation in Houston in the United States that could save her life.

But at the end of 2016, it emerged that of the €422,000 ($485,000) raised by his foundation since 2014, just €20,000 were destined to his daughter, according to investigators.

The rest was used to rent homes, buy vehicles, luxury watches or pay for hotels.

READ MORE: Parents of sick girl accused of spending appeal money on themselves

Blanco and Nadia's mother Margarita Garau were found guilty of “aggravated fraud” for “using the illness of the daughter as a ploy to get money from others by way of donations.”

Doctors had supposedly told Blanco his daughter would die from trichothiodystrophy, which in severe cases causes delayed development, intellectual disability, and recurrent infections that can lead to death at an early age.   

The father claimed he had travelled all over the world and contacted the best specialists, including an eminent geneticist who lived in a cave in Afghanistan.

But in December 2016, the Spanish media outlets El Pais and Hipertextual cast serious doubt on the story.

They said there was no proof of his travels, the hospital in Houston did not exist, nor did the alleged pioneering treatment, and Nadia was not in danger of dying.   

This prompted a probe for alleged fraud.   

Police eventually detained Blanco after he fled a police check near the border with France.   

He had on him €1,450 in cash, two watches, various electronic devices and a blank firing gun, the police said.   

Police also raided the family home in Catalonia where they found some 30 luxury watches worth 50,000 euros, laptops, high-end mobiles and marijuana.


Why some single mums feel ‘invisible’ in Germany’s coronavirus crisis

Germany's huge coronavirus rescue packages have won praise at home and abroad. But for divorced caterer Lulu Pototschnik the financial aid remains tantalisingly out of reach -- and she's not the only single mum slipping through the cracks.

Why some single mums feel 'invisible' in Germany's coronavirus crisis
A single mom with her two children in Prötzel, Brandenburg. Photo: DPA

“My daughter and I have always coped. But now it's as if my life is getting off track. I feel more invisible by the day,” Pototschnik told AFP.

For over a decade, the 51-year-old has run a small business doing backstage catering at concerts and festivals.

But when the pandemic swept through Germany in March, all her bookings for the rest of the year were cancelled.

Pototschnik applied for the government's “immediate assistance” and promptly received €9,000 in her bank account.

But it's been of little use.

Under the scheme's rules, the cash can only go towards fixed business expenses, which Pototschnik hardly has.

“What good is money you're not allowed to spend?” she asked.

With no partner to share the burden, Pototschnik has been burning through her savings to cover her monthly living costs of around €2,200, including private health insurance and rent on the house she shares with her 21-year-old daughter in the western city of Essen.

Pototschnik, who used to cater for the likes of Tote Hosen, holds up a catering book which hasn't gone to use in months. Photo: AFP/Ina Fassbender

In the northern town of Glueckstadt, single mum Patricia Schönfeld is also struggling.

Having just rejoined the workforce this year after separating from her husband, the 47-year-old was still on probation as a category manager in purchasing when the pandemic shut schools, keeping her seven-year-old daughter home.

Juggling conference calls with full-time childcare was “extremely challenging”, and Schönfeld was let go in April.

'Poverty trap'

Germany counts around 1.5 million single-parent households with children under 18, overwhelmingly headed by women.

A recent Forsa survey commissioned by the government found that single mothers have been uniquely impacted by the pandemic.

READ ALSO: Nine in ten single parents can't survive on German minimum wage alone

Thirty percent of single mums in salaried employment have had to take leave for lack of childcare, compared with 19 percent of other parents. They are also more likely to have stopped working altogether.

Of the single mums who are self-employed, just 15 percent have been able to continue working as normal.

The North Rhine-Westphalia branch of the VAMV, an association for single parents, said Chancellor Angela Merkel's government should offer more targeted and longer-term aid to prevent single mums from “falling into the poverty trap”.

Wary employers

Schönfeld still considers herself lucky, saying she and her child “are getting by” with her savings and the maintenance her ex has been ordered to pay until their divorce is finalised.

She is hunting for a job, “but it's slim pickings,” she said, believing that employers are wary of hiring single parents who may have childcare problems if a second wave of infections hits.

Pototschnik is also looking for work to tide her over until the event industry gets back on its feet.

She has so far unsuccessfully applied to be a postal worker, a driver and a petrol station attendant.

'Not right'

The German government has pledged over a trillion euros in aid to shield companies and citizens in Europe's top economy from the pandemic fallout, including through loans, grants and subsidised shorter-hours programmes.

It has also lowered the hurdles for receiving unemployment benefits and rent assistance.

Archive photo shows a mother and child on the Alster in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

But Schönfeld said she doesn't qualify because she is technically still married and her estranged husband earns a good salary.

Pototschnik hasn't ruled out claiming benefits, but worries the €600 her daughter earns each month in her apprenticeship will be taken into account.

“It's not right for me to live off my daughter. That money is for her future.”

The family ministry told AFP the government was aware of the plight of single parents and had introduced special measures to support them, such as greater tax relief, emergency daycare and partial wage compensation for those unable to work because of school closures.

All families in Germany will also receive a bonus of €300 per child this autumn.

Schönfeld, who asked her daughter's teacher if she could stop printing out assignments in colour to save money, described the bonus as “a joke”.


Pototschnik has recently started volunteering, handing out meals to homeless people.

“Sometimes I wonder: will it be me queueing for food next year?”

Schönfeld said more than anything, single parents needed a break from the relentless cycle of running the household, keeping the children happy and worrying about money and the virus.

“Single mums need to make more noise,” she said. “But we're exhausted.”

By Michelle Fitzpatrick