Sozialversicherung macht frei!
This German example of the Nanny State brought a lump to my throat yeterday.
For the first time in almost seven years 12-year-old Corinna Kutzner and her younger sister Nicola spent Christmas at home. The two girls were torn away from their family not because their parents abused them or did not love them but because they were simply deemed too "stupid" to care for them.
The International Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ordered the German authorities to return the children more than a year ago but it was only last month that the social services in Bersenbrück, Lower Saxony, complied. "We're not a perfect family," says 35-year-old Annette, the children's mother. "But we are a good one, and after so many years we're just trying to put all the pieces back together."
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“For Christmas the girls said they wanted bicycles,” he says, “so that even if they are taken away again they’ll be able to cycle back.”
When the children returned they did not cheer or run to wildly hug their parents — that happened later. First, they quietly sat down in a circle and held each other’s hands. During their long years away they had only been allowed to see each other for one hour each month, under strict rules: no touching, no kissing and no emotional topics.
“When they took them away we didn’t know what to tell the girls, so we told them they were going on holiday and hoped we would have them back in a week,” says Annette. It was nine months later, just before Christmas 1997, that they were allowed to visit them for the first time.
The Kutzners are undoubtedly eccentric. Their tiny farmhouse is shared by two grandparents, three parrots, a dog and more than 40 stuffed animals mounted on the walls. “It’s a bit weird but it’s Grandad’s hobby,” says Corinna, giggling and pointing to a stuffed Persian cat. “That was our pet Strolch, and those are some of our parrots that died, and those are dead owls he found on the road.”
The girls’ uncle also lives with the family. A gardener who lovingly tenders an “English garden” in front of the house, Detlef has retarded speech and was born with a crippled right hand.
“When the social worker came she found us a strange bunch and took an instant dislike to us,” says Ingo Kutzner, the girls’ father, who works on a chicken farm in the village. “She was only in her late twenties, was single and had never had kids of her own.”
The social worker had arrived at Annette Kutzner’s request. Finding it difficult to cope with two children and a sick father-in-law who had to be washed and shaved each morning, a friend had suggested the social services might be able to help.
The family thought the young social worker had been sent to help them with household chores. In fact she was making notes on their performance as parents.
Her report said it was “difficult to imagine that the parents could contribute to the children’s healthy development given their own development deficit”. A court concluded they were too “intellectually substandard” to be parents.
After being away for a week five-year-old Corinna made it clear that the “holiday” was over and it was time to go home, according to official reports. Nicola was depressed and cried herself to sleep each night. But not content to separate the children from their parents, social workers also decided to separate the sisters.
After a year in the children’s home they were put into different foster families. “A degeneration in their IQ is already pre-programmed into them and their only chance is to acquire new parents. It is best this is done separately because otherwise the older sister would dominate and stifle her younger sister’s development,” read a report justifying the decision.
Determined to prove herself a good mother, Annette enrolled on an intensive course to become a childminder. In Germany the register of “tagesmutter” is rigorously regulated by the government and requires first-aid skills as well as knowledge of psychology and sociology. After passing her course with flying colours in the same year the children were taken away, she presented her qualification to the social services and demanded her children back. But they were unimpressed.
“We didn’t know what to do,” says Ingo. “We had to do an IQ test even though I can read and had a job, but they told us we were just too stupid and what can you do against that?” In private the family compare their treatment with how the Nazis had dealt with society’s “untermenschen”. “But of course you can’t say that sort of thing publicly in Germany,” says grandfather Kutzner.
Almost bankrupting themselves, the Kutzners hired a solicitor and petitioned the courts as well as parliament and Gerhard Schröder, the chancellor. But their efforts went unrewarded until Volker Laubert, head of the action group Germany’s Rights for Children, took their case to the International Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
At school Corinna is doing well enough to study two languages and was able to describe in English her visit to Buckingham Palace this summer. But both girls feel divided loyalty towards their foster parents, with whom they have spent half their lives.
Despite being reunited, Ingo says the family is still living with the irrational fear that a social worker may suddenly reappear on their doorstep to take the girls away: “For Christmas the girls said they wanted bicycles,” he says, “so that even if they are taken away again they’ll be able to cycle back.”