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Germany

Clamping Down on Child Neglect

One of the shocking aspects of the recent harrowing death of a seven-year-old girl in Hamburg was the fact that hers was not an isolated case. So why does child neglect still happen, and what can be done to prevent it?

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Hundreds of mourners attended Jessica's burial in Hamburg


Jessica spent her short life in a tiny, unheated backroom of a top-floor apartment, where the windows were kept permanently shut and covered with black plastic. When she died, she weighed just 9.5 kilos (20.9 lbs). The autopsy showed she'd been eating carpet fluff and her own hair to quell her hunger pangs. Her mother, 35-year-old Marlies S., only called an ambulance when Jessica went into a coma.

"Her last few weeks alive must have been hell, " said a police officer.

Neighbors and social services were unaware of the child's existence. When she had failed to attend school at the age of five, Hamburg's education authority sent an official to the apartment where Jessica was registered. After three attempts to establish contact, the authority decided the family must have moved and gave up.

She isn't the only child in Germany to have met a painful death at the hands of indifferent parents. In the past five years, at least eight children have died under similar circumstances.

According to the Berlin Criminal Office, an average of 200 cases of suspected child neglect per year are reported to the police in the capital alone.

Changing sensibilities

Ekin Deligöz Die in der Türkei geborene Bundestagsabgeordnete Ekin Deligöz Bündnis 90/Die Grünen

Ekin Deligöz

"A lot of cuts are being made to the social services, but, at the same time, their cases are piling up," Ekin Deligöz (photo) of the Green party said. She heads the Bundestag's child commission and oversees the government's recently unveiled "National Plan of Action for a Child-Friendly Germany." "One reason for the increase is that there's been a change in attitudes and more and more people are getting referred to the youth welfare office," Deligöz explained.

Recent years have even seen social workers acting with excessive haste. "Youth welfare offices are regularly criticized for over-reacting," said Uta von Pirani, director of Berlin's youth welfare office. "They're often accused of taking children out of families too quickly." But she says they can't win. "Either that, or they're accused of acting too late or not at all," she added.

According to Katharina Abelmann-Vollmer from the German Child Protection Association, the number of cases of child neglect is not actually rising. "What's changed is public sensibility. People are more shocked about violence towards children than they used to be, and the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child approach is no longer acceptable."

A side-effect of unemployment

In some respects, Jessica was also a victim of Germany's recent slide into mass joblessness.

"Germany's widespread unemployment is taking its toll on the nation's children," pointed out Deligöz. "The divorce rate is climbing and we're seeing more and more patchwork families."

"In Hamburg, a child loses its right to a kindergarten place if its mother is unemployed," she went on. "For as long as Jessica was in care, her situation was under control. Obviously, the staff would have been the first to notice anything suspicious -- if she'd shown signs of starvation, for example. Had she been able to stay there, her case would never have gone unnoticed."

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