Sunday, October 17, 2004

Couple Fights State For Its Seven 'Stolen' Children

German couple fight state for seven 'stolen' children
By Tony Paterson in Munster
(Filed: 17/10/2004)

It should be a precious memory for Cornelia Haase. It was December 2001 and she was breastfeeding her week-old baby girl in hospital. Mrs Haase was looking forward to taking Laura Michel home to her husband, Josef, and their six other children for a family Christmas.
She sobs as she remembers how a doctor came into the room and said that he had to take her baby for a blood test. She had no way of knowing that it was a ruse.
In fact, the baby was seized by Germany's welfare authorities who wrongly believed that the Haases were neglecting their children. The baby, and her brothers and sisters, were placed in mandatory foster care, where they remain to this day.
"She was taken out of the ward and I never saw her again," said Mrs Haase from the couple's neat, seven-bedroom house in the village of Nordwalde, outside Munster in north-west Germany.
Mrs Haase, 36, and her 37-year-old husband have since been denied all official contact with their children, despite a ruling in their favour by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg this year and appeals to Gerhard Schroder, the Chancellor.
Their only contact has been during furtive visits to foster homes. Mrs Haase was once able to speak to one of her daughters in a playground. She has received a number of pathetic, pleading letters smuggled out of their foster homes. One reads: "Mummy, my biggest hope is that we can all be together again."
"I can't bear to read the letters and I have stopped trying to visit my children, even though I know where some of them are. It is too distressing," said Mrs Haase.
"For us, Germany is a police state," said Mr Haase, an engineer. "It is almost impossible to express the utter despair and outrage that we feel towards the authorities."
The Haase case has highlighted the country's abysmal record on children's rights. Despite evidence that welfare reports about the family were biased and key testimony from family doctors was dismissed, German authorities and courts have ignored the Strasbourg ruling.
Last week Carsten Rummel, the family's lawyer, announced that he would make a fresh custody appeal to Strasbourg. "The law in Germany stipulates that the authorities should do everything in their power to ensure that the children are returned to their parents. This has not happened," he said.
He is also trying to reach an out-of-court settlement that would enable the Haases to see their children. "Another court case could take months. We are trying to prevent the children from being estranged further," he said.
The family's ordeal began in late 2001 when Mrs Haase was heavily pregnant. She had requested day care help from the local youth welfare office in looking after her six children, aged one to 11.
Mrs Haase was told that a welfare report on the family had to be completed if she was to receive help. Two psychologists were sent to interview the Haases and two of their children in three visits.
The outcome proved traumatic. The day that Laura Michel was placed in foster care, police and officials from Munster's youth welfare office rounded up the couple's other children: Maurice, one, Sandra, three, Anna Karin, six, Lisa-Marie and Nico, both nine, and Timo, 11. All of them were taken to foster homes.
The Haases were told that psychologists believed that they were unfit to look after their children because they neglected and mistreated them.
The couple's fight to get back their children began as soon as they were taken away. Repeated attempts to overturn the decision were rejected by state courts, which ruled that evidence from the family's paediatrician, and another independent psychologist, that the Haases were fully capable of looking after their children was not credible.
The couple's home is now a shrine to the missing children. Six bedrooms are packed with their toys and the name of each child is written on the bedroom doors in bright letters.
Earlier this year, Mrs Haase gave birth to her eighth child, Antonia. She was so frightened that her daughter would be taken away by the authorities that she chose to have her in secret, in a Hamburg hospital.
Mr Schroder's office has told the family that the Chancellor could not intervene because the case was sub judice. In April this year, judges in Strasbourg concluded that the family's rights had been breached under article 8 of the EU's human rights convention, and awarded the Haases €53,000 in damages. A German state court, however, responded by upholding the decision to keep the children in care.
Anna Pohl, the head of the Munster child welfare office, defended the authorities' handling of the case. She said: "The European court's evaluation of parents' and children's rights differs from what is stipulated under German child and youth protection legislation."
Asked why her office had not taken away Mrs Haase's youngest daughter, Antonia, Mrs Poehl said: "The media pressure is too great."
Mr and Mrs Haase have not taken a holiday since their children were taken away. "We would just like to get our children back and rent a big house in the country," Mrs Haase said. "Somewhere we could all start getting to know each other again."