DARMSTADT — A German couple whose children were seized by authorities due to concerns that they were being homeschooled rather than sent to public school has been granted the right to retain custody of their two youngest children, who are still minors, as they are attending a state school — albeit under duress.
According to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, the same judge who ordered the children’s removal six years ago called for a hearing this year to prove the school attendance of the two minors. The children appeared before a Darmstadt court two weeks ago, but before a different judge due to concerns about bias.
Both said in letters to the court that they preferred to be homeschooled.
“I am not ready to attend a public school simply because German judges cannot imagine for me to be educated in a different way. I will not tolerate being forcefully taken and locked up,” one wrote.
“I just want to live and learn in peace with my family without the constant fear of being torn apart like in 2009 and in 2013,” another stated. “I went to a public school for a year and definitely did not enjoy it.”
As previously reported, in 2013, approximately 20 social workers, police officers and special agents swarmed the home of Dirk and Petra Wunderlich and forcefully removed all four of 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.”
In April, the Wunderlichs asked the court to allow an appeal before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights and are awaiting a response.
Attorneys for the family state that they are pleased, however, that the Wunderlichs were allowed on Tuesday to retain custody of their children.
“The right of parents to direct the education of their children is a fundamental right, protected in international law. We are pleased to see that the German court respected this right and acknowledged that the Wunderlich children are doing well,” Robert Clarke, director of European Advocacy for ADF International, said in a statement.
“As we wait for referral to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, we hope that there too the rights of the Wunderlich family will be safeguarded.”