The government has decided that the best way to help children at risk of abuse is to intervene early on. But critics question whether there's enough money behind the plans.
Social workers would have to visit the homes of children at risk
The German minister for families, Kristina Schroeder, presented a new child protection bill to parliament on Tuesday. It aims to provide support for problem families who show signs of stress and a tendency towards neglect, rather than put children into care, a practice which has increased by 81% in the last 4 years according to the German Association for Child Protection.
"With the new child protection law, I think we will establish a strong network to protect our children - a network which puts the wellbeing of the child in the centre, which relieves families in stressful situations and therefore protects children who are at risk and which makes us all responsible for protecting children," Schroeder said at a press conference.
The proposed law would set up an early intervention network comprising youth welfare offices, schools, health authorities, hospitals, doctors, pregnancy advice centers and the police.
Midwives would start visiting families in need of assistance from pregnancy until a year after birth. According to Schroeder, one in ten families needs help after a child is born, which adds up to 60,000 families each year. To cover the costs of providing midwives for these needy families, the government plans to invest 30 million euro each year in creating a nationwide infrastructure.
Home visits controversial
Schroeder (right) says prevention and intervention are the keys to protecting children
Schroeder identified two main problems that Germany faces in providing adequate child protection.
Firstly, families where children are abused often start having difficulties during pregnancy; Schroeder says early intervention is essential if they are to be helped.
And midwives should continue to work with problem families up to a year after a child is born
"The use of midwives is the linchpin of early intervention because they can not only advise on medical aspects, but also on parent-child relationships. Midwives enjoy a very special trust, especially on the part of the mother," Schroeder said in a press conference
A second issue is that at the moment it's possible for families to elude social workers and hide child abuse.
Schroeder wants to put a stop to so-called hopping between youth welfare offices. By moving house, families are currently able to drop under the radar of social services. She wants to ensure that files concerning these families are passed on to the new welfare offices when families move house.
The family minister also wants to introduce compulsory home visits, if a child is deemed to be at risk and if such a visit wouldn't put the child in further danger.
"It's clear that home visits are vital to protect children, especially for young children who aren't going to kindergarten yet," Schroeder said.
This could prove to be a contentious issue. Schroeder's own Christian Democrats tried to introduce a similar measure during the previous government, but it was rejected by their then-coalition partners, the Social Democrats, who are now in opposition, but still have power to block measures in the second house of parliament.
Critics say volunteers working with children should also have criminal checks.
Risk of endangering vulnerable children
Heinz Hilgers of the German Association for Child Protection warns that there are situations where visiting a family can be counterproductive.
"If you make a house visit on the basis of a phone call from a neighbor, who might have ulterior motives, it could damage the relationship with the existing social worker," he told Deutsche Welle. "In the case of child abuse, without having enough evidence to take the child away with you, the abuse could get worse."
The government also plans to make it possible for doctors and psychologists to report suspicions about child abuse to social services, without breaching patient confidentiality. At the moment this is a gray area with many states having differing laws.
Although most child abuse happens within the family, Schroeder also wants to introduce minimum standards across the board in schools and sports clubs. Schroeder wants to standardize systems that clubs have for investigating and documenting cases where child abuse is suspected.
Employees working with young people will be required to have a certificate of good conduct following a criminal background check. The government would make these child protection standards a precondition for organizations to get funding and an operating permit.
The measure has been criticized, however, because the background checks wouldn't apply to voluntary workers.
"For a child it doesn't matter whether the person abusing him is paid or not. It's important that we do everything to reduce the chances of abuse," said Hilgers
Hilgers said that in principle he agreed with the government's aims, but its success would depend on how well the policy was implemented.
"Local government is strapped for cash at the moments and we'll see if they are able to afford it. I would have liked the federal government to have invested more," Hilgers told Deutsche Welle.
If the law is passed, it would come into force in January 2012.
Author: Natalia Dannenberg
Editor: Michael Lawton