German family tragedy sparks debate on child protection
A family tragedy in which five young boys died, apparently at their hands of their mother, has renewed the debate about the protection of young children in Germany.
The victims, aged 3-9, were found suffocated with plastic bags at their home in Darry, a village with a population of 450 near the Baltic coast in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.
Their mother, who had been undergoing psychiatric treatment, alerted doctors to what had happened, and they in turn informed police, who took her into custody on Wednesday.
Prosecutors said they were preparing charges of murder, but would have to take into account the woman's diminished reponsibility.
Social services told a press conference Thursday that they had been in close contact with the family since August after being alerted by one of the two fathers of the children.
A spokesman said care workers had visited the home and found the mother had religious fantasies and showed "clear signs of a psychiatric illness."
There was no indication the children were in any acute danger, the spokesman said, adding they appeared to be in good health and showed no signs of neglect.
However, the father of the three youngest children, a US citizen, left the family home on Tuesday, and it was unclear whether this triggered the mother's desperate action a day later.
The tragic deaths were the latest in series of infanticides that have rocked Germany.
Earlier this week, a 28-year-old woman was arrested on serial murder charges after finding the remains of three newborns on an apartment balcony in the town of Plauen, halfway between Berlin and Munich in the state of Saxony.
Police said she told interrogators she had given birth to three daughters, in February 2002, January 2004 and September 2005, and in each case the infants had "died suddenly" soon after birth.
Last year, a woman in the east German town of Brieskow-Finkenheerd was given a 15-year jail term for killing nine of her 13 babies and burying their bodies in containers filled with earth.
Family Affairs Minister Ursula von der Leyen, called the latest cases "a tragedy" and said investigations needed to be conducted to see if there were indications something was wrong.
"Society as a whole has to take responsibility and not turn its back when it sees that a family is in despair or unable to cope," said the minister, herself a mother of seven.
On November 21, the Schleswig-Holstein parliament passed a law requiring compulsory health checks for children as part of preventive measures against neglect and abuse.
"Society has to take action to ensure there is no repeat of such cases," said Heide Simonis, head of the German section of the children's relief organization UNICEF.
Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Germans "not to look away" in cases where they suspect children are suffering from neglect.
It was not just the responsibility of local authorities, the chancellor said, "it is something that concerns all of us. We need to work together to ensure children have a secure future."
A day after the tragedy, neighbours placed flowers in front of the white-brick house where the boys lived. In the unkempt garden, children's toys stood alongside a kiddies' slide and swings.
Neighbours said the children were lively and often played in the garden. "The boys were polite and friendly," said local councillor Hans-Adolf Oden. "They were attentive and always said hello," he added.