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In Germany, a Rash of Mothers Killing Their Children Has Shocked the Nation

by Rose-Anne Clermont

When we think of children killed by their parents, we may recall a news documentary about a poor Indian family with an unwanted girl. Or, the media has helped us conjure the image of a Chinese family terrified of violating the government’s one-child policy. For those of us in wealthy, western countries, it is easier to believe that infanticide and child killings are tragedies unique to poor and quickly developing nations.

But week after week, the unfathomable has happened, right here in Germany. After months of neglect, a five year-old girl dies of starvation and thirst. Two weeks later, the corpses of three sibling newborns (born almost six, four and two years ago) are found on a balcony, in a suitcase, and a freezer. On the same day, in another city, five brothers (three to nine years old) are drugged and suffocated. This year, babies have been found in trashcans and floating in lakes. Barely forgotten is the case that stunned Germany in 2005: the corpses of a mother’s nine newborns (born secretly over the course of more than a decade) found buried in flower pots and buckets in a storage shed.

Every newspaper in Germany has run a headline similar to “How Could This Happen?” or “Who Will Protect the Children?” Politicians have given swift reactions to the recent tragedies. Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Germany to develop “a culture of looking” at families in potential crisis and has scheduled a conference on December 19th to address child protection in Germany. Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen is pushing for mandatory medical check-ups so that children, especially those being abused and neglected, don’t fall through the cracks.

But even as politicians begin to take action, Germany wants to know why parents, especially mothers, kill their children.

“Repressive mechanisms, whether from fear or shame, lead them to being “surprised” by the birth,” writes Dr. Anke Rohde, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist at the Bonn University Gynecological Psychosomatic Center for Obstetrics and Gynecology in a paper on infanticide. “In a stress or panic reaction, the result is a possible killing or abandonment after the birth.”

In the cases which parents systematically killed their older children, severe mental illness combined with other stresses is often a major factor, according to criminal psychologist Rudolf Egg in a Der Spiegel article. Steffi K., mentioned above, who drugged then suffocated her five sons with plastic bags, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had long held together a very challenging situation. She was a poor single mother–the father of two of her five sons, who had helped with the kids had recently taken off. One boy was autistic and allegedly spent nights banging his head against his bed; another had Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder (ADHD). In the end, Steffi allegedly heard voices and spirits.

Severe mental illness was not a factor in every recent infanticide and child death case here in Germany, but extreme social isolation was. “There are women who are isolated and overwhelmed who can’t talk to their mothers or their sisters,” says Elizabeth Rapaport, an American professor of law and philosophy at the University of New Mexico and author of a paper entitled, Mad Women and Desperate Girls: Infanticide and Child Murder in Law and Myth. Rapaport’s research in the United States—which has the highest rate of infanticide out of all industrialized countries, shows that the majority of infanticide cases do not involve severe mental illness.

In what seems like a surreal conclusion to hiding and repressing a pregnancy, many women hide their dead newborns in places that only they know about and can later visit, as in Susan F.’s case. Susan, the mother who hid her newborns’ corpses in the freezer, in a suitcase and in the trash (over the span of six years) said she didn’t want to “burden” her boyfriend with the pregnancies. According to Der Spiegel, she and her boyfriend already have two sons and the father, often away for work, didn’t want any more children. She gave birth to the last two children alone in her apartment and told police that they died on their own shortly after birth. Investigations began when the child born in 2002 (which Susan had had in a hospital) didn’t show up for school registration. In a sad footnote, Susan allegedly put a woolen cap on the baby’s head before she put the corpse in the freezer.

“No woman brings a child into the world to then kill it,” argues Leila Moysich, the head of Project Find Baby/Sternipark in Brandenburg, in a statement. “It’s almost always normal women who have been thrown off guard by an unwanted pregnancy. They are pupils, students from good homes, women in their mid-twenties who can’t imagine a baby, or the mother of several children who can’t face up to it emotionally or economically. It may be a woman who has been raped or a Muslim citizen afraid of facing her family.”

Project Find Baby/Sternipark in Hamburg was the first to set up babyklappen or baby hatches in Germany in early 2000, to keep mothers from throwing away or killing their newborns. When a mother opens a hatch on the outside wall of a hospital, an incubator bed awaits the infant on the other side. Shortly thereafter, but giving the mother enough time to leave unnoticed, an alarm goes off to alert hospital staff.

The baby hatch has been criticized on grounds ranging from the moral acceptability of such hatches to their actual effectiveness. A recent study by the children’s rights network, Terre des Hommes, showed that the rate of infanticide in Germany, about three to four dozen per year, has not dropped since the inception of baby hatches. However, handfuls of babies have been placed into the hatches by women who view them as a solution to an unwanted child. Unfortunately, this may not be possible for women who have so completely repressed acknowledging their pregnancies that they are then shocked when a baby does appear.

“Offers like anonymous births and baby hatches won’t reach these women because they don’t even know that they’re pregnant,” says psychiatrist, Dr. Rohde.

Germany is facing a tragic paradox. It is a rich country but also one starving for babies. The birthrate here has been far below sustainability levels for decades and the government has taken active, expensive steps to try to reverse that. Current programs include more money for subsidized daycare, proposed higher child welfare payments, and money so that new parents don’t fall into poverty. Still, there were about 149,000 more deaths than births last year, according to Germany’s Federal Statistics Office – a trend that is expected to continue. Fewer and fewer children enter schools each year, while the elderly population continues to swell. It is a trend now common in other wealthy, industrialized countries.

This society, even amongst Germans, is not known for its child friendliness. According to the executive director of the German Society for the Protection of Children (DKSB), Paula Honkanen-Schoberth, families too often face difficulties with housing owners and neighbors because of noisy children. City planning in Germany allots more space for parking spots than for playgrounds. There are restaurants that don’t allow children under 12. These are things, she says, that wouldn’t happen in other European countries like Italy, or her own native Finland. “In Finland, every child is valuable.”

A troubling indicator of the state of Germany’s children can be seen in the steadily increasing rate of child poverty. Since a welfare reform was introduced in 2005, the number of German kids living off welfare here has doubled. One in every sixth child under the age of 15 lives in poverty, according to DKSB. These children are more likely to have health, learning and social problems, and their parents are more likely to be stressed and overwhelmed.

However, poor parents should not be labeled as child abusers and neglecters, Honkanen-Schoberth says. The vast majority of poor people do not maltreat their children. But poverty in combination with severe isolation, being overwhelmed, a lack of familial support, relationship problems, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and/or difficult children with disabilities can all lead to the risk of parents harming their children. “Unfortunately, there will never be absolute security,” she says. “There will always be acute, dramatic crises in families. But the risks can be reduced.”

Honkanen-Schoberth advocates for preventative measures, such as having midwives visit homes after the birth, as well as outreach to at-risk families in the early part of children’s lives, when they are most in danger of being harmed. According to UNICEF Germany, children under one year are three times more at risk than those children between one and fourteen.

DKSB created a nation-wide initiative to include children’s rights in the German constitution. They hope to eventually have children’s constitutional rights taught in schools so that kids learn and understand their rights early on. “The poverty of children must be stopped now,” Honkanen-Schoberth warns, “Otherwise the poor kids of today are the poor, uneducated, disadvantaged parents of tomorrow.”

About the Author

Rose-Anne Clermont was born in New York City and first came to Berlin on a Fulbright grant after completing a Master’s Degree in Journalism at Columbia University in 1998. She has contributed to Spiegel Online, The International Herald Tribune and, in German, to die Zeit. She lives in Berlin with her husband and three sons.

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