The authors of a new book say 200,000 children are abused in Germany each year. But experts disagree on the number - and on how to protect children from domestic violence.
When forensic pathologist Michael Tsokos is called, it's already too late. "There's a small child lying in front of a huge tower of equipment in intensive care and it's clear: He will probably never regain consciousness."
Tsokos then has the task of finding out, based on marks on the body, how the tragedy occurred. "They often say at first that the child had fallen off the couch. If you then tell the parents that this is not possible, they come up with a new story, that the child had climbed up the shelves and fell off."
Tsokos knows these explanations well - they are always the same. "When I started in forensic medicine almost 20 years ago as a young medical assistant, I always thought these were isolated cases. But the same patterns happened again and again."
Today, Tsokos is Director of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Berlin's Charité University Hospital. In his career he has conducted autopsies on about 80 children who died from injuries sustained through physical abuse. In addition, there were hundreds of children who survived severely disabled.
One day, he says, he had enough - and wanted to set an example. Together with his colleague Saskia Guddat he wrote a book about his experiences. They chose a deliberately provocative title: "Germany abuses its children."
According to police, around three children die in Germany each week from the effects of physical abuse. The perpetrators generally come from the direct family environment: father, mother, a new boyfriend. In 2012, the statistics showed 3,450 cases of child abuse. The police warn there is likely to be a very high number of unreported cases.
There is a wide-ranging discussion as to how many cases go unreported. In their book, Tsokos and Guddat say there are about 200,000 maltreated children per year, quoting the German Child Protection Association.
Joachim Merchel, a professor in the Social Work Department at the Münster University of Applied Sciences, considers this too high. For him, the decisive figure is the number of children taken into care to protect them from their families. "We have a number of 30,200 children taken into care due to acute endangerment for the year 2012."studies. He concludes that about 10 to 15 percent of all parents employ serious and relatively frequent corporal punishment with their children.
Protection by law
Since November 2000, children in Germany have had a statutory right to a non-violent upbringing. Physical punishment, psychological injuries and other degrading measures are not allowed. But until police and youth services take action with a family, Tsokos said, repeated excessive violence often takes place, and it must then become known outside the home.
But even when youth services take action, children in Germany are only insufficiently protected, Tsokos said. Again and again, there are media reports of abused or murdered children where youth services had been aware of serious abuses in the family for a long time.
An example is the recent Yagmur case. The three-year-old Turkish girl died in Hamburg of a ruptured liver and internal bleeding - injuries that authorities say were inflicted by her own father. In the past, Yagmur's parents were under suspicion of having severely abused the child. Nevertheless, she was returned to her biological parents after a stay with a foster mother.
A 'parents' license'?
The head of the Christian Democrats in Berlin, Kai Wegner, has now called for the introduction of a "parents' license." Expectant mothers and fathers should be given compulsory training courses, he says.
But Tsokos sees a very different problem in Germany. For one, there are financial incentives to keep vulnerable children with their families for as long as possible. "Money is earned from the suffering of children," he said, criticizing the way youth services commission independent agents to deal with problem families. "These people only earn money for as long as the children are in their families."
Merchel disagrees: "The number of children in protective and foster care is increasing." He says the government has already developed a number of effective mechanisms to offer help to children and parents. And despite many municipalities' difficult financial situation, the number of staff has increased in youth services, he said.
"What a society must accept, unfortunately, is the fact that even with good youth services, there will always be cases where children are badly hurt or even lose their lives."