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Germany

August 1, 2008

German Court Keeps Five Kids Because Parents are Homeschoolers

A homeschooling family in Southern Germany spent six hours in a grueling German Family Court session this week with the hopes of regaining custody of their six homeschooled children, who have been held in state custody since January. After the long and confusing session, the Gorbers regained custody of their 3-year-old son. The judge, meanwhile, retained custody of five other Gorber children now being kept in foster care and youth homes pending a court-ordered psychological evaluation of the parents. The court did allow increased visitation for some of the children up from one hour every two weeks that had been permitted since the children were seized in a surprise raid by the youth welfare office (“Jugendamt”) and police.

In January of 2008, Jugendamt and police officials surrounded the German home of the family while Mr. Gorber visited his wife at a local hospital where she had been admitted due to complications from her pregnancy with her ninth child. The oldest son, age 21, and a daughter, age 20, were not taken by the authorities, but all the other children were removed despite their repeated protests.

The siblings reported that the 7-year-old was gripped around the waist by a youth home music teacher, dragged kicking and screaming across the courtyard and thrown into a van. The terrified 3-year-old clung to his 20-year-old sister so tightly that even the police and Jugendamt could not separate them. Both had to be taken to the youth home, where at last the little fellow’s strength gave out and he could be taken into custody.

The children then received psychological exams which all reported that they were normal and well-functioning. Although these evaluations attested to appropriate parenting, the judge indicated that he was unwilling to allow the other children, all of school age, to return home because he did not believe the father’s assurances that he would enroll the children in school.

Someone who attended the six-hour hearing described the scene as “bedlam in the courtroom, without any attempt by the judge to impose discipline. The parties kept interrupting each other and everyone spoke at once.” Some of the children have reported that their court-appointed attorneys said they will fight to keep them in foster care despite the children’s firmly stated desire to return home to their parents.

Many in Europe are critical of Germany’s Jugendamt. Germany has Europe’s highest incidence of removing children from their homes. A recent article in Germany's Zeitung newspaper showed figures indicating that the removal of children from their homes was up 12.5% this year in Germany while the number of abused children remained the same.

Opponents have accused the child welfare system in Germany of corruption driven by exorbitant payments by the government to children’s homes and foster care providers. This “youth welfare industry” is financed by a 21 billion euro budget. The local operating youth welfare committees include privately owned and for-profit children’s care institutions who participate with legal sanction on the committees with two-fifths of the total vote. No other child welfare system in the world is known to allow this type of intermingling between government and commercial enterprises. Such an intermingling would appear to create a serious conflict of interest.

This is of particular concern to homeschooling families in Germany in light of court decisions and a recent change to the federal youth welfare law that was signed by German President Horst Koehler on July 5 of this year. The law, BGB 1666, establishes the standard by which family courts are to determine whether custody of parents can be taken away. The law was changed to make it easier for children to be removed by the Jugendamt when the children are “endangered.” But endangerment is not defined in the law. The highest German courts have ruled that homeschooling is not tolerated because it creates “parallel societies” and is an abuse of parent’s rights. Administrative agencies and courts have stated that the failure to send children to school is by definition “endangerment.”

Until last year, homeschooling families had mostly been harassed with exorbitant fines. This year however, Rosemarie and Juergen Dudek of Archfeldt, Germany were sentenced to three months each in prison for homeschooling. In a previous family court case involving the Dudeks, the judge declined to take away the parental rights of the parents. It was thought that the Dudeks cared for and educated their children too well to justify penal removal of the children under the legal clause “misuse of parental authority.” During the Dudek’s criminal trial the judge ordered a 900 euro fine against the family for not sending their children to school. Not satisfied with this “lenient” sentence, local State Prosecutor Herwig Mueller told Mr. Dudek “you won’t have to worry about paying the fine, because I’m going to send you to jail.” His appeal of the fine resulted in the latest prison sentence for Mr. And Mrs. Dudek.

More homeschooling families have fled Germany as a result of this persecution, as it now appears that family court judges and the Jugendamt are ready and willing to take children away from their parents simply because they are being homeschooled. Nevertheless, “We are greatly encouraged by the thoughts and prayers of American homeschoolers,” said Mr. Dudek in a recent phone conversation with HSLDA Staff Attorney Michael Donnelly. “It gives us hope to know that there are people who have the freedom to educate their own children at home. We so appreciate the letters and notes of encouragement. These letters help us maintain our focus and in seeking God’s will for our family.”

These cases are drawing attention within Germany and across Europe.

Kathy Sinnott, a European parliament member from Ireland, criticized Germany’s treatment of homeschooling and the way the Jugendamt treat non-German families residing in Germany. In a recent press release, Sinnot said “…Germany’s approach to home schooling compromises this [European law on mobility] and forces families to choose between a job and the best interests of the children. The need for family-friendly employment policies must be recognized throughout the EU. We need to have flexibility in the education of children temporarily resident because of work. There is also an issue around the attitude to non-German families in the German children’s courts. I hope the dialogue between the Commission and the German State will resolve this discriminatory situation.”

A member of the SPD party in Bavaria, Germany also stated in a recent radio interview that that “Imprisonment or fines in this matter are absolutely excessive in my opinion, because homeschooling can provide very high-quality outcomes. This topic is definitely one which we must work through politically. There can be no black-white declarations, but we must discuss this without ideological blinders on.” Although encouraging, it will take more than one or two members of state legislatures to effect the needed change.

Donnelly, during a recent trip to Germany to encourage homeschoolers and to work for change, met with the Gorber family as well as with policy and lawmakers at the European Union and in the German State of Baden Wurttemberg.

“This poor, simple family is being crushed by unbearable pressure from the German state’s police power, primarily because they are homeschoolers,” Donnelly said. “This father of nine, a woodworker, told me how difficult this is and the incredible strain it’s placing on his children, his wife and himself. As longtime homeschoolers, they have irritated the local youth authorities who needed only the pretext of the hospitalization of the mother and other exaggerated claims to seize the children.” Donnelly noted that “while there are some policy makers in some of the states who are willing to take on this important issue of human rights, most couldn’t be bothered. It is going to take increased public awareness and international pressure to confront German Society with this outrageous behavior. Unfortunately it looks like more parents will have to go to jail and more children taken into state custody before German public policy makers wake up and do something. It’s very disturbing that Germany can get away with this kind of behavior with such little public comment by other Western governments.”

HSLDA is committed to working with national and international ministries and associations to support German homeschoolers in their fight to be free from persecution. The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children is a fundamental human right, and HSLDA is grateful for the support of its members to defend this freedom here in the United States and abroad.

If you would like to send a note of encouragement to the Gorber Family write to them at:

Family Gorber
Max-Mutscheller-Str.2
88662 Überlingen
Germany