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New Child Protection Law Aimed at Early Intervention

Courts can intervene sooner and more easily in cases of suspected child neglect, according to a new law passed by the German parliament. But child advocates said they don't think it will do much good.

Young boy sits in the corner with a stuffed bear

Several recent deaths have alerted the state to child neglect and abuse

In cases of child abuse and neglect, courts in Germany previously had to show that parents were unfit. This is often difficult to prove and, if verified, usually leads to the children being taken away and placed in foster care.

According to a new law, approved by the German parliament on Thursday, April 24, courts can get involved earlier, before significant physical or emotional damage has been caused to the child and before the parents lose custody.

The tragic deaths of several children in the past few months show that there are considerable deficits in the system, said Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries.

"We want courts to be able to intervene earlier in the future," said Zypries.

Courts can order parents to get help

Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries

Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries

To intervene with preventative measures, authorities now have to show that the child's well-being is endangered and that the parents cannot or do not want to improve the situation.

The new law allows courts to force parents to take certain steps that promote their child's well-being: going to counseling, taking their child to the doctor, making their child go to school or attending a non-violence course.

The courts should also make clear to the parents that they face consequences, which may include losing their child, if they don't participate in the preventative programs.

In addition, courts are now required to work more quickly when a child's well-being is a stake, with the first court appointment to take place within one month of the case being filed.

Recommendations for many of the law's measures were put together by an expert commission initiated by Zypries in 2006.

Criticism from child aid group

Children play at a pre-school

The new law aims to help troubled parents do a better job -- but will it work?

The German children's aid group Deutsche Kinderhilfe called the new law "a drop in the bucket," saying that there simply weren't enough judges to carry out the newly adopted measures and that most judges weren't trained as social workers.

"The law isn't wrong, but the demands it places are completely exaggerated," the group's president Heinz Hilgers said in an interview with television broadcaster N24.

He added that he didn't think "the law would prevent a single case" like that of 5-year-old Lea-Sophie in Schwerin who died of malnutrition in November 2007 after being neglected by her parents for months.

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