Annette Kutzner has not been allowed to kiss her two little girls goodnight for five years. Nor could she and her husband, Ingo, give their daughter Nicola a hug on her ninth birthday last month.
Nicola and her sister, Corinna, now 10, were removed from their parents five years ago. They were separated from each other and placed with foster families, where they have spent half their lives.
The Kutzners have never been accused of being violent or neglecting or abusing their children; nor do they belong to a cult. So what is their crime? Being stupid, according to German social services and the country's courts. It is only after a heartbreaking series of appeals, ending at the European Court of Human Rights, that they have now been told they can have their girls back.
"I'll have to buy new clothes for them," said Annette, 33. "There is no way what we have here will fit any more, and I don't even know what kind of things they like. Nicola is still homesick, she says she wants to come back. But Corinna doesn't talk much. It has been really difficult for them, too."
The two sisters have not seen each other since they were separated. Ironically, it was Annette who originally approached social services. Then in her late 20s, she was finding it difficult to cope with the two girls as well as managing the household, a farmhouse in the Badbergen area near Osnabrück, which the family shares with her husband's brother and both his parents. Corinna and Nicola were not doing well at school, and Annette decided she needed advice.
The authorities sent her a social worker, but relations with the woman went from tense to terrible. She filed a damning report on Annette and Ingo, saying they were intellectually and emotionally underdeveloped – in essence, they were too stupid to raise their own children.
Annette and Ingo, it is true, both had special help during their schooling, but they manage well enough. He has a manual job at a chicken factory, where he has been a trusted employee for years. Annette had a certificate in childcare. And – a fact that did not seem to weigh very heavily with the authorities – they love their children.
The Kutzners began a series of legal fights, first to get any access to the girls at all, later to reduce the number of observers present at their monthly visits, and finally to get the girls back.
"They made a big mistake, the authorities here," said Ingo. "We didn't do anything wrong. The girls always had what they needed, and we all miss each other terribly. But we haven't given up. We have been waiting and waiting." Even though the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in their favour, the couple will still have to wait.
Volker Laubert, from the campaign group Association for the Defence of the Rights of the Child, has been helping the family. "The children have seen their parents for only an hour a month for the last five years and have, of course, built up relationships with the fosterers," he said. "We really hope those relationships can be maintained, and we want to manage the reunification of the family gradually, keeping the contact to the foster families if possible."
The European Court was unequivocal in its ruling. Although the German authorities were right to be concerned about the children's development, it said, the family should be given support rather than ripped apart. The German justice ministry, citing the possibility of an appeal, would not comment except to say: "German youth laws do not conflict with European laws on human rights. This was regarding a specific decision, and that was how it was seen by the European Court of Human Rights."Reuse content