Germany Moves to Mend Gaps in Child Safety Net | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 20.12.2007
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Germany Moves to Mend Gaps in Child Safety Net

Horrified by recent cases of infanticide, Germany wants mandatory doctor visits and is debating adding constitutional protections for children. In children's rights, Germany has lagged behind other European countries.

A child is checked by a doctor

Doctor's visits won't be optional for young children

Recent news stories of mothers arrested for killing their children have pointed out the holes in Germany's child welfare safety net.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel called for taking a dual approach to protecting children. Parents need more support, she said. Yet there's also a need for better monitoring to make sure children are not left in an abusive situation.

Doctor's visits for young children should become mandatory across the country, politicians decided at an emergency meeting Merkel called to discuss the topic on Wednesday, Dec. 19.

Merkel, who heads the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), met with state and local officials responsible for child welfare under Germany's federal system.

The doctor visits are envisioned as part of an early warning system to help detect possible abuse.

"The risks for children must be detected early in order to establish a help net for at-risk children," said Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU).

Seeking constitutional protection

Two parents with their child at a picnic

Not all children have loving parents

For the moment, children's rights won't be specifically enshrined in the constitution, as Germany's Social Democratic Union (SPD) had hoped.

Mentioning children specifically in the constitution would ensure that both the legislature and the courts weighed child welfare carefully when making every decision, said Germany's Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries of the SPD.

The CDU rejected the need for additional legal protections beyond the human rights already part of German law, saying they were unnecessary. Roland Koch, the premier of Hessen who is a member of the CDU, said discussion should focus on how to support local projects which offer practical help to families.

Children need extra support

Seventy German children's rights groups have called for a constitutional change.

"It's very important for children themselves to have their own specific rights," said Mieke Schuurman, the secretary general of the European Children's Network. "They are a specific group and they are more vulnerable than adult citizens."

Boy with hat in front of an apartment building

Poverty remains a risk factor for children

The European Children's Network successfully lobbied for a reference to children's rights in the European Union's new reform treaty. The United Nations also specifically addresses the issue. Enshrining children's rights into a constitution provides a legal basis for ensuring that their needs are addressed across the board, Schuurman said.

Of course, words need to be backed up by effective programs and financial support.

While there are many local and regional programs focused on helping at-risk mothers and their children, Germany is not seen to be leading Europe in child welfare issues. A recent study by UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center in Florence, Italy, put Germany solidly in the middle of the pack on dealing with issues such as childhood poverty, health, safety, education and risky behavior.

Scandinavian countries headed the list of the best countries in Europe for children.

The next study, due out in spring, will focus on early childhood issues. In Germany, there has been considerable interest at the federal level in early childhood services. It's seen as important to breaking the cycle of poverty and for integrating the children of immigrants, said Eva Jespersen, head of the Economic and Social Policies Unit at Innocenti.

Particularly in Germany's decentralized system, it's extremely important to have a national framework for child rights, Jespersen said.

"Every child within a sovereign state has the same rights," Jespersen said.

It's up to the federal government to ensure that the rights of children are advanced uniformly and address inequalities, she said.

Recent cases spotlight problem

Police tape in front of a house

The goal is to prevent child abuse

On Wednesday, Dec. 5, five children aged three to nine were found suffocated in their home in Darry, Schleswig-Holstein. Their mother, who had been undergoing psychiatric treatment, alerted doctors to what had happened.

A few days earlier, a 28-year-old woman was arrested on serial murder charges after three newborns were found dead in a small town in Saxony. Police said she told interrogators each of her three daughters "died suddenly" soon after birth in 2002, 2004 and 2005.

Between 80 and 100 children die in Germany each year from neglect and abuse, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported. And child abuse numbers are also rising, although it's unclear whether actual incidents have increased or whether people are more likely to report suspected abuse than in the past.

Authorities removed about 170,000 children and teenagers from their parents' homes in 2006 and placed them in state care.

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