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Clamping Down on Child Neglect

Jane Paulick, DW-WORLD.DE
March 17, 2005

One of the shocking aspects of the recent harrowing death of a seven-year-old girl in Hamburg was the fact that hers was not an isolated case. So why does child neglect still happen, and what can be done to prevent it?

Hundreds of mourners attended Jessica's burial in HamburgImage: dp

Jessica spent her short life in a tiny, unheated backroom of a top-floor apartment, where the windows were kept permanently shut and covered with black plastic. When she died, she weighed just 9.5 kilos (20.9 lbs). The autopsy showed she'd been eating carpet fluff and her own hair to quell her hunger pangs. Her mother, 35-year-old Marlies S., only called an ambulance when Jessica went into a coma.

"Her last few weeks alive must have been hell, " said a police officer.

Neighbors and social services were unaware of the child's existence. When she had failed to attend school at the age of five, Hamburg's education authority sent an official to the apartment where Jessica was registered. After three attempts to establish contact, the authority decided the family must have moved and gave up.

She isn't the only child in Germany to have met a painful death at the hands of indifferent parents. In the past five years, at least eight children have died under similar circumstances.

According to the Berlin Criminal Office, an average of 200 cases of suspected child neglect per year are reported to the police in the capital alone.

Changing sensibilities

Ekin Deligöz Die in der Türkei geborene Bundestagsabgeordnete Ekin Deligöz Bündnis 90/Die Grünen
Ekin DeligözImage: dpa

"A lot of cuts are being made to the social services, but, at the same time, their cases are piling up," Ekin Deligöz (photo) of the Green party said. She heads the Bundestag's child commission and oversees the government's recently unveiled "National Plan of Action for a Child-Friendly Germany." "One reason for the increase is that there's been a change in attitudes and more and more people are getting referred to the youth welfare office," Deligöz explained.

Recent years have even seen social workers acting with excessive haste. "Youth welfare offices are regularly criticized for over-reacting," said Uta von Pirani, director of Berlin's youth welfare office. "They're often accused of taking children out of families too quickly." But she says they can't win. "Either that, or they're accused of acting too late or not at all," she added.

According to Katharina Abelmann-Vollmer from the German Child Protection Association, the number of cases of child neglect is not actually rising. "What's changed is public sensibility. People are more shocked about violence towards children than they used to be, and the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child approach is no longer acceptable."

A side-effect of unemployment

In some respects, Jessica was also a victim of Germany's recent slide into mass joblessness.

"Germany's widespread unemployment is taking its toll on the nation's children," pointed out Deligöz. "The divorce rate is climbing and we're seeing more and more patchwork families."

"In Hamburg, a child loses its right to a kindergarten place if its mother is unemployed," she went on. "For as long as Jessica was in care, her situation was under control. Obviously, the staff would have been the first to notice anything suspicious -- if she'd shown signs of starvation, for example. Had she been able to stay there, her case would never have gone unnoticed."

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Urgent need for functioning networks

But identifying problem cases isn't always enough. Jessica may have been one of Germany's "invisible children," but there are many other cases where kids recognized to be at risk still fall through the net because of inadequate cooperation between education authorities and the youth welfare offices.

"In future, we will alert the youth welfare office every time there is grounds for suspicion that parents are failing to send their child to school," said Hamburg education senator Alexandra Dinges-Dierg in the wake of Jessica's death.

Such a move might have saved this particular child's life. As it is, an acute lack of communication from department to department is widely acknowledged to be the main obstacle in Germany to creating a functioning alarm system against child neglect.

Logo Grafik Deutscher Kinderschutzbund e.V.
Deutscher Kinderschutzbund e.V.

"What we need are colleagues who are ready to work together," said Abelmann-Vollmer from the Child Protection Office (photo). "The problem is there are too many parallel systems. All too often, the health services, education authorities and youth welfare offices work as rivals. Their various responsibilities are firmly demarcated, and staff are too unwilling to let their tasks overlap."

Legislation is not the answer

Jessica's case prompted Dinges-Dierg to call for tightening the law enforcing school attendance. This would allow an official from the local education authority, accompanied by a police officer, to enter homes where children are registered who either fail to attend school or have been absent for extended periods. As it stands, parents can refuse entry.

But many believe changing the law isn't the answer. "Ensuring children can lead good lives is not a question of introducing new legislation, it's a question of creating a more child-friendly society," insisted Abelmann-Vollmer. "We need recognition for working parents and more support structures for them to turn to."

Society's role

Mutter mit Kind
Image: das-fotoarchiv.com

Germany's ageing population and dwindling birth rate are symptomatic of another issue. Children are increasingly marginalized here. Unemployment, poverty and social isolation are all factors that leave many parents unable to cope with the demands of bringing up children -- moreover, without the traditional help of the extended family.

"The Child Protection Association believes child-rearing is the responsibility of the whole of society," argued Abelmann-Vollmer. "It's not that you should call the police when you hear the family next door arguing; it's that you should offer to look after their children so they can go buy the groceries."

Deligöz is more reluctant to pass the buck. "The concept of the family has changed," she said. "We no longer live in extended families, and society has had to take its place. But we can't make society responsible for everything."

Von Pirani expressed similar sentiments. "Family is a very private matter in Germany," she said. "That explains why there was no one close to Jessica who could alert anyone to what was happening. That was what was lacking. We can't expect the state to keep tabs on everyone and everything."

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