Germany is again being rocked by news of an organized child abuse ring. At least three children — aged 5, 10 and 12 — were abused repeatedly over several months. The crimes were filmed and distributed as child pornography via the darknet.
Several people have been arrested across the country as a result of the investigation. But at the center of this latest case is a 27-year old IT technician, who was using his mother's summer house in the western city of Münster as a crime site. The mother, a 45-year-old kindergarten teacher, allegedly knew what was going on there.
The main suspect had been convicted on charges of possessing child pornography twice
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One of the most recent victims is his girlfriend's ten-year-old son. Several years ago social workers in the local child welfare office flagged the boy's situation to the family court, suggesting that the two-time sex offender may pose a threat to him. But the court decided against placing the child in custody, arguing that the mother's boyfriend lived in a different house.
Failure to protect
"The judges have to find reasons to withdraw custody and then tend to believe that the mothers take care of their children and want only the best," says Professor Hans-Jürgen Schimke former chairman of the Child Protection Association in North Rhine-Westphalia.
"This is the biggest and most fundamental problem — that the judges are often inexperienced and do not know the depths and abysses of human existence."
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There are over 550 child welfare offices across Germany. One part of their responsibility is to intervene when children need protection and provide help to families. In 2018 there were over 50,000 such interventions — a ten% increase on the year before — most of them because of neglect, not abuse.
But the youth welfare office can only apply for such care, a family court has to decide in the end. According to the Federal Statistical Office, around 175,000 children lived in homes or in foster families in Germany in 2018.
Germany's family law makes it very difficult to remove a child from its family. Schimke says this is for concrete historical reasons.
Like in all totalitarian systems, children in Nazi Germany were indoctrinated early on. Their education was taken out of the parents' hands and obligatory membership in the Hitler Youth ensured the state's grip on their upbringing, he explains.
"Against the background of our experience of the times of National Socialism, we have included provisions in our Basic Law [ed. note: the German Constitution] that stipulate that the care and upbringing of children is the natural right of the parents."
This, he points out, differs fundamentally from the situation in other countries. "In the US, for example, there is no such parental right. They take a much more pragmatic approach. Even if someone leaves their children alone or does not supervise them on the playground, they run the risk of being punished for it," said Schimke. "In Denmark, all children, when they are born, are accompanied by a family care worker who takes a very intensive look at parental behavior. And in France, too, there is a completely different relationship where the state shares responsibility with the parents."
A 'pandemic' of child abuse
Police, judges and welfare workers often find it hard to recognize whether a child has been abused, explains Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig, the German government's independent commissioner for child sexual abuse issues.
Perpetrators tend to be family members, friends, or neighbors — and thus it is often very difficult for the children to report such crimes. Often the child's mothers are in the know, but fail to protect their children.
Child abuse has reached pandemic proportions, says Rörig: German crime statistics for 2019 show 15,000 cases of child abuse and over 12,000 investigated cases of child pornography, which was a rise by almost ten% from 2018.
And these are only the crimes that are actually reported, he says.
Indeed the police force in Germany’s most populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia, where Münster is located, has received a boost in equipment and staff.
A major child abuse case in the state's town of Lügde, which went to trial last year, saw employees of the youth welfare office and local police being put under investigation as no action had been taken for several years despite clear indications of sexual abuse.
Acknowledging "police failure," North Rhine-Westphalia's Interior Minister Herbert Reul called the situation a "debacle."
The child welfare offices are still calling for more manpower to be able to cope with the rise in cases. And they are demanding that the processing of cases needs to be sped up: If a family court decides against action — as was the case in the current case in Münster — precious time is lost until a higher court can make a decision, while the child remains in the family where it is not safe.
The darknet allows illegal material to be sold and distributed efficiently. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the chairperson of the Christian Democrats (CDU), Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling party, speaks of a big international market. She wants to push for changes to the criminal code to address those who commit crimes of this nature.
Currently, child sexual abuse can be punished by 15 years in prison, but the consumers of child pornography get off lightly. "It is unacceptable that a shoplifter gets punished more severely than someone who buys child porn on the internet," she said.