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German parents allowed to permit child restraints

The German parliament has debated a new bill that allows parents to have their children restrained in hospital in certain cases. Child welfare activists say the new rules don't go far enough and could be abused.

Children in German hospitals or care homes may be restrained or sedated if a parent requests it - subject to the approval of a family court - under a new bill the German government is pushing through parliament.

The bill, drawn up by the Justice Ministry, allows "holding, fixing, sedation, the use of therapy tables, bed rails, belts, protective suits, or locking up in time-out rooms," for up to six months, after which the case has to be reviewed.  

Once the parent has filed the application, the family court judge may only deny the measure if "it doesn't conform to the child's well-being," something that would be judged based on a simple medical certificate, rather than an assessment presented to the court.

Protecting children

Conservative politician Marcus Weinberg, who initiated the new regulations, said the idea was to create more "security for children," because it would ensure that courts do not replace parents in the child's well-being.

Bundestag (picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka)

Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced the bill

But the opposition Green party, along with several child welfare activists, say that a court ruling should be essential for any measures that involve restricting a child's freedom - especially restraints around the waist or feet.

For that reason, the Greens say that children should have the same status as adults when it comes to committing them to a psychiatric home - which always requires a court ruling. Children, on the other hand, still only require their parents' consent (a question clarified by a federal court in 2013).

Though doctors were consulted by the Justice Ministry when the new bill was being drawn up, child and youth care representatives complained that their input was not sought. "There was no specialist debate," Wolfgang Hammer, a former department head of a child help center in Hamburg, told the "taz" newspaper. Hammer thinks the new bill is deeply flawed. "What is intended as child protection has become a gateway for imprisonment as a pedagogical method whenever parents and institutions think they're overburdened." He suggested that coordination centers for difficult cases offered a plausible alternative and had proved effective in Hamburg.

Controversial methods

Similarly, other child care specialists said that restraints and time-out rooms were controversial. Friedhelm Peters, board member of the International Society of Child Care Specialists (IGFH), said the new bill threatened to "legitimize a highly problematic practice." "Tying someone to a bed with a belt is a no-go for child safety," he told the "taz."

Bundesrat Außenansicht (Imago/epd-bild/J. Blume)

The Bundesrat has found flaws in the bill

Nevertheless, other child and youth psychiatry specialists welcomed the bill. Veit Roessner, senior psychiatrist and board member at the German society for child and youth psychiatry (DGKJP), said the bill cleared up some legal uncertainties he had faced. "In individual cases it is always difficult to decide - who is supposed to decide what happens to the child or the young person?" he told DW. "In a lot of cases, a judge's ruling is worth a lot to us - because then it's clear that a judge has to make a decision, and then there's a certain standard. It means we're not left alone with the problem. Up until now, it was chaos - everyone did what they wanted."

Roessner could understand the argument of the bill's critics, but said it was based more on "historical reasons" rather than practical issues: Germany has been wary of state intervention in psychiatric practice since that was part of both the Third Reich and East German regimes.

"Children who didn't function in society as one would have liked were locked away and abused in a completely excessive way - so of course this issue carries a certain emotional burden," he said. "How strict can you be? How much can you intervene? To what extent does everyone have the right to decide that - and of course that's always a question of IQ and age." 

The upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat, has also voice some reservations about the bill. In an assessment published on February 10, the Bundesrat said that the bill's focus on getting family court approval failed to take into account children's basic rights. That meant that services should focus more on providing adequate specialized personnel to make outright restraint unnecessary.

Not only that, but the Bundesrat committee also decided that the bill "neglected the fact" that there were already "alternative possibilities" covered in current child and youth protection laws. "On top of that, the bill is missing the point of view of child laws," the assessment read.

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