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Children and Families

'Fine line' to help protect children

The number of children in state custody has reached a record high. Refugee kids are also taken into care and should have the right to aid, says Heinz Hilgers, president of the child protection body Kinderschutzbund.

According to Germany's Federal Statistical Office Destatis, the number of children placed in state custody in 2013 has hit a record high with over 42,000 children. The number of unaccompanied refugee minors also rose to about 6,600.

DW: German child protective services have taken in more children in 2013 compared to the previous year. Figures rose by five percent. Why is that?

Heinz Hilgers: This has been going on for years. If you compare that with figures from 2005, the number of children taken into care rose from 25,664 to 42,123 in 2013. This can no longer be explained by attributing it to taking unaccompanied minors coming from abroad - refugee children - into care. It's a huge problem that youth welfare and politicians need to pay particular attention to.

Destatis has said the most common reason for taking children into care was because parents were unable to cope with the situation. Are authorities paying more attention now?

Yes, that's certainly part of it. There are two trends. First, reporting on child neglect cases has multiplied in the past years. That is linked to the increase of taking children into care.

The second point is that courts now take action against employees of child services, when they are under the impression that they were too late in intervening - for instance, in the case of Kevin [a two-year-old who was neglected and abused and died in 2006]. That of course leads to the fact that employees have become very, very careful - maybe at times too careful.

And the third point is that since child poverty has risen for years, we have created more dysfunctional families, who then often encounter problems that they cannot solve on their own.

You have just mentioned the case of two-year-old Kevin who died in Bremen in 2006. There have been accusations in the past of authorities not acting quick enough. Are authorities more inclined to take children in more quickly?

The increased figures point to that [taking children in] for sure, but it's not always the case that it's right. Taking children into care if it's not necessary is also [a form of] violence against children. It's a very severe intervention that will traumatize children. On the other hand, it's also very dangerous if a child is not taken into care even though it's necessary. The child service employers walk a fine line here. They need the backing and support of the public.

Heinz Hilgers (photo: picture alliance)

Heinz Hilgers is president of the child protection organization Kinderschutzbund

What happens to the children who have been placed in state custody? Are they placed in a children's home or will they be taken in by foster parents?

That differs from case to case. For one, it depends on what sort of resources the child protective service agency has. It also depends on the individual case. Not every single child can be placed in a foster family. Chances to live in a foster home are higher for young kids.

How likely is it that children will eventually return to their birth parents?

It depends on how collaboration with the birth parents works. After children have been taken into custody, it's necessary to work with their birth parents - for instance to provide social-pedagogical help, intensive care, to take care of drug addiction and so on. And if that happens, there's a chance. But if that's not followed thoroughly, there is no chance.

Data also shows that the number of unaccompanied refugee minors has risen as well. What is going to happen with them in state custody? Are they going to live in the same children's homes? Are they allowed to stay in Germany?

That's also different [since] cities and municipalities are not required to let unaccompanied refugee children stay permanently. Some cities like Cologne are a model in that regard; other cities refuse to even meet the cost. That's why there is a very different treatment of unaccompanied refugee children in Germany. Some have been placed in respective emergency shelters at airports for a long period of time and will be deported. Other children - as it's done in Cologne - are getting help through youth welfare to help them with integration. We as Kinderschutzbund [child protection group] demand that all refugee children get the right to youth welfare.

Heinz Hilgers is the president of the child protection organization Deutscher Kinderschutzbund.

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