BERLIN (Reuters) - The death by starvation of a three-year-old girl in Germany has sparked a round of soul searching on how to combat rising child neglect in the country.
The girl’s death Monday in Nuremberg has led to accusations of government failure in tackling child abuse and recriminations against social services, pushing the issue to the fore as a September 27 federal election looms.
Deutsche Kinderhilfe, a leading children’s aid group, called the 3-year-old Sarah “another victim of political inactivity,” prompting Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen to press for the introduction of a new child protection law as soon as possible.
“Child protection cannot wait,” von der Leyen, a mother of seven, told Reuters in an interview. “We need this law to be brought in right after the election.”
The tragedy was just one in a slew of incidents that have risen to national prominence in the run-up to the vote.
Von der Leyen was speaking as a court in the eastern city of Chemnitz Wednesday handed down an eight-year jail sentence for manslaughter to a mother who allowed her two-year-old boy to die of thirst and starvation over Christmas in 2007.
That same day, a 19-year-old went on trial in Nuremberg accused of torturing his girlfriend’s baby daughter.
A day earlier, a baby girl was found dead in a plastic bag in Stuttgart, while Monday authorities charged a 21-year-old from the town of Biesenthal with killing her newborn twins.
“There’s been a shocking run of cases of child abuse and neglect,” said Paula Honkanen-Schoberth, managing director of the German child protection federation (DKSB).
“We’re starting to see more political awareness of the problem, but it’s yet to be followed up by increased readiness to come up with the funding for it,” she said.
Experts say the subject has been ignored for too long.
“However, it’s getting more attention in the media now, which should help,” said Michael Kruse, a spokesman for aid organization Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk.
With one of the lowest birth rates in the developed world and an aging population, children are a precious commodity in Germany. Experts say rising poverty levels and increasing social isolation have made children a less popular choice.
If the trend continues, economists believe Germany risks becoming a society of pensioners whose welfare will depend on a dwindling supply of workers.
Authorities say that due to a lack of international statistics, it is hard to assess whether child abuse in Germany is more prevalent than in other developed countries. But domestic figures offer few grounds for comfort.
A study jointly published last month by Deutsche Kinderhilfe and a leading police association showed that the number of reported abuse cases of children under the age of six in Germany had leapt to 1,799 in 2008 from 907 in 1998.
The death of Sarah, whose parents are under investigation for suspected manslaughter, followed a series of highly publicized incidences of abuse in the last few weeks.
There was widespread outrage and revulsion over the case of a Berlin mother who last month was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison after she injected her baby son with feces.
Days later, a couple from the western town of Wetzlar received life terms for murdering their eight-month-old daughter. A court heard they had crushed the baby’s skull.
Then police announced a family in northeastern Germany was under investigation on suspicion of shutting away their 13-year-old mentally handicapped daughter for nine years.
German family minister von der Leyen said that in cases where a family situation was known to be difficult, house calls by social services should be made standard practice nationwide.
The minister, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, said a new bill should make clear when doctors could breach their code of confidentiality to inform authorities in cases of suspected abuse or neglect.
Additional reporting by Thorsten Severin; writing by Dave Graham; editing by Andrew Roche