Helping Germany′s Neglected Children | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 14.11.2005
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Helping Germany's Neglected Children

When it emerged earlier this year that a Hamburg mother had allowed her young child to starve to death, the nation reacted with horror. Since then one man has been working to better the lot of underprivileged youngsters.


What goes on behind closed doors remains anyone's guess

For the past several months, the local vicar from the parish which was once home to the seven-year-old girl has been working towards the creation of a youth centre which would offer its visitors care and commitment.

"The plans have come a long way already, but what we still need are sponsors," vicar Thies Hagge said. He is hoping to establish a place which offers safety to children from troubled homes, a place like the "Arche" or Arc, which was set up by vicar Bernd Siggelkow in Berlin 10 years ago.

But with between 100,000 and 300,000 children in Germany deemed neglected, such projects can never be anything more than a drop in the ocean.

But what constitutes neglect? Katarina Abelmann-Vollmer of the German Association for Child Protection (DKSB) said that is not easy to define. She added there is a clear distinction drawn between physical or medical neglect and an absolute lack of mental stimulation, which can in turn have physical consequences. In extreme cases, it can lead to a child's growth becoming stunted with no physiological explanation.

Glückliche Eltern beim Picknicken auf einer Wiese

Happy families are no foregone conclusion in modern Germany

In 2004 alone, more than 17,000 boys and girls were taken away from their families by social services, because they were considered to be at risk.

"What goes on behind closed doors is often very dramatic," Siggelkow said. The Berlin vicar added that the impoverished often try and save money by not providing for their children rather than sacrificing themselves.

Authorities caught betwee n two stools

Although the violation of parental care is a punishable offence, child welfare authorities often struggle to meet their protective function. Basic constitutional law in Germany secures parents the right to bring up their own children, but that said, the state has a constitutional responsibility to monitor education and care.

Hamburg's Greens and Social Democrats say that in the case of serious doubt, a child's welfare should come before parental rights. Both parties are calling for the nine regular medical checks currently offered to children between birth and the age of five, to be made mandatory. As it stands, many parents don't take their children to the last three examinations, which politicians say could help to curb any increase in neglect.

Baby boy

Germany offers parents a series of thorough check-ups for their kids

Hermann-Josef Kahl of Germany's Professional Association of Pediatricians said he believes the way forward could be gentle sanctions for those parents who don't take their children to their medical check-ups.

"It would be possible to link the payment of family allowance or the distribution of kindergarten or university places to the number of check-ups attended," he said. In order to underscore the importance of the health checks, the Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA) is organizing an awareness campaign.

Help before pu n ishme n t

But Abelmann-Vollmer said she is not convinced that making medical check-ups for children obligatory is such a good idea.

"The parents of neglected children are already up against it and bogging them down in yet more duties, doesn't have a good effect on the children," she said.

Instead, she suggested a diversity of low-threshold options, such as mother and child cafes and toddlers' groups, which offer help at an early stage before a situation has the chance to escalate.

What is clear is that Germany has to take some action. Siggelkow said he has long been expecting a case of starvation in Berlin, and would not be remotely surprised to see severely neglected children dumped outside the "Arche" one day in the future.

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