STRASBOURG — The European Court of Human Rights has unanimously ruled that a German couple’s rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights were not violated when authorities temporarily removed their children from their home due to concerns that they were being homeschooled rather than sent to public school.
“The court finds that the enforcement of compulsory school attendance, to prevent social isolation of the applicants’ children and ensure their integration into society, was a relevant reason for justifying the partial withdrawal of parental authority,” it wrote on Thursday.
“It further finds that the domestic authorities reasonably assumed—based on the information available to them—that children were endangered by the applicants by not sending them to school and keeping them in a ‘symbiotic’ family system.”
The court concluded that “there were ‘relevant and sufficient’ reasons for the withdrawal of some parts of the parents’ authority and the temporary removal of the children from their family home,” and that the “domestic authorities struck a proportionate balance between the best interests of the children and those of the applicants, which did not fall outside the margin of appreciation granted to the domestic authorities.”
As previously reported, in 2013, approximately 20 social workers, police officers and special agents swarmed the Darmstadt home of Dirk and Petra Wunderlich and forcefully removed all their children. A family court judge had signed an order that day authorizing officials to immediately seize the Wunderlich’s children for failing to cooperate “with the authorities to send the children to [public] school.”
“I looked through a window and saw many people, police, and special agents, all armed,” Dirk Wunderlich recalled. “They told me they wanted to come in to speak with me. I tried to ask questions, but within seconds, three police officers brought a battering ram and were about to break the door in, so I opened it.”
A month later, following a court hearing about the matter, the Wunderlich children were returned to their parents after it was agreed to send them to a state school. However, they were still considered to be in the custody of the government as Judge Marcus Malkmus characterized homeschooling as a “straightjacket” for children.
“The children would grow up in a parallel society without having learned to be integrated or to have a dialogue with those who think differently and facing them in the sense of practicing tolerance,” Malkmus wrote. “[Homeschooling presents] concrete endangerment to the wellbeing of the child.”
An appeals court later overturned the ruling, opining that it was improper for the judge to withhold legal custody from the parents.
But as Germany considers homeschooling a criminal act, and as the Wunderlich family remained uncertain about its legal situation, it took its case to the European Court of Human Rights. The couple had hoped for a positive outcome, but the court unanimously ruled that the German government acted reasonably when it took the children away for a time out of concern for their educational and social well-being.
“[T]he German courts justified the partial withdrawal of parental authority by citing the risk of danger to the children. The courts assessed the risk on the persistent refusal of the applicants to send their children to school, where the children would not only acquire knowledge but also learn social skills, such as tolerance or assertiveness, and have contact with persons other than their family, in particular children of their own age,” the court wrote.
“[T]he children were returned to their parents after the learning assessment had been conducted and the applicants had agreed to send their children to school. The court therefore concludes that the actual removal of the children did not last any longer than necessary in the children’s best interest and was also not implemented in a way which was particularly harsh or exceptional,” it opined.
The court also found that “the authorities—both medical and social—have a duty to protect children and cannot be held liable every time genuine and reasonably-held concerns about the safety of children vis-à-vis members of their families are proved, retrospectively, to have been misguided.”
Dirk Wunderlich expressed disappointment with the court’s ruling.
“It is a very disheartening day for our family and the many families affected by this in Germany,” he said in a statement. “After years of legal struggles, this is extremely frustrating for us and our children. It is upsetting that the European Court of Human Rights has not recognized the injustices we have suffered at the hands of the German authorities.”
Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF), which had represented the family in court, likewise was saddened by decision.
“Petra and Dirk Wunderlich simply wanted to educate their children consistent with their convictions and decided their home environment would be the best place for this,” remarked ADF International Director of European Advocacy Robert Clarke in a statement.
“Children deserve this loving care from their parents. We are now advising the Wunderlichs of their options, including taking the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.”