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Die Seite Drei

By Stefan Mayr, January 15, 2014



With All Force

Deiningen — Carsten and Britta Hennigfeld are sitting on a slightly dismounted dark green leather couch shoulder to shoulder. He holds her hand, she wipes tears from her face again and again. On the table in front of them are a plate of cookies and a pot of maté tea. The cups are pottery, the walls are paneled with light wood. In the corner burns a wood stove. It’s cozy here in the parlor of the ultra-biblical community of believers, “Twelve Tribes,” on the estate Klosterzimmern in Deiningen/Schwaben. But there’s no good mood in the air.


Carsten and Britta Hennigfeld

“For us, it rends the heart every day; we have never cried so much” says Carsten Hennigfeld.

His wife says: “We are so helpless, so faint.”

The Hennigfeld’s are one of twelve couples of the “Twelve Tribes” of which in a startling raid, the children were taken away in September last year. The family court has provisionally deprived them of custody. The parents are accused of “systematically abusing both physically and mentally” their children.

Now, four months later, a dozen members of the community are sitting in their room and talk openly about the allegations.

It is the attempt of a counter-offensive, their sharp impeachment of the Jugendamt (youth office). They do not see themselves as the offender, but as a victim. “We are being treated like criminals,” says Britta Hennigfeld, “but the ones abusing our children are not us, but the authorities.”

At the sight of the rod, says a father, the children understand that their behavior was not good.

Their sharpest criticism is against a second police action that took place in Dürrlauingen (district Günzburg) in December. There, in the mother-child home of the St. Nikolaus-home Britta Hennigfeld and two more mothers of the “Twelve Tribes” had been housed, because they still breastfed their infants, and after the first raid it was decided that they should not be separated from their children at the age of 18 months. This went well for three months until December 9th. At seven o’clock in the morning, officials of the Youth Office and the police were at the front door unannounced. They took three babies and four older siblings. Each child was taken away and put into another car.

“I wanted to nurse my daughter one more time, but two policemen turned my arms on my back and took the girl away from me,” says Raissa Santos Reip. The 27-year-old is sitting on a wooden chair next to the Hennigfeld’s, she also has tears in her eyes. “My three children screamed and clung to me,” she says. “I wanted to say goodbye, but I could not even give them a kiss.”

Britta Hennigfeld says, “I do not know how our children will be able to handle this.”

Even bystanders who witnessed this action criticized the actions of the authorities. “It’s a cry to heaven,” says Patricia Forster, a mother who is also housed in the St. Nicholas home.

“This was beneath contempt” complains Manfred Herrmann, a citizen of Dürrlauingen: ”This is not how you deal with people,” says the 74-year-old. He is not sympathizing with the community of believers, but: “What happened there was unseemly.”

He and five other Dürrlauing townsmen have written a letter of protest to the Jugendamt and the Family Court. It states: “This lacks any accountability.”

Is that true? Can it be that the authorities exaggerated with “forced removal to prevent immediate danger”? (as they call the removal of children from their parents) Could it be that they do more harm to the children than good?

The occasion of the first raid was a report of an RTL journalist. He had recorded with a hidden camera several mothers beating their children in a closet with a rod on the bottom. The reason for the punishment was in one case, apparently, that a child would not sleep: “Say: I’m tired,” urged the mother.

She hit her son over and over until he whimpered, “I’m tired.” For outsiders it sounds strongly like trying to break the will of the child.

Four months after probably the largest mass forced removal to prevent immediate danger in the history of the Federal Republic one thing is certain: the ones suffering in the situation are especially the children, the long-term consequences are not foreseeable.

In the tug of war between Community and Youth Welfare Office, the little ones are the most innocent — the biggest losers.

Therefore, even if you condemn the educational methods of the Twelve Tribes, the question rises: What’s worse for the children? The punishment or the permanent separation of the parents? The task of the Jugendamt is to protect the child’s well-being, and so to protect the children from bodily or mental harm.

But where are the children of the “Twelve Tribes” doing better? With their parents, who consider the beating with the rod as a legitimate means of education? Or separated from mother and father, in some cases as early as infancy, and partly in homes with difficult children?

The members of the “Twelve Tribes ” chastise their children with rods, which they openly confess. Klaus Schüle, of whom two children were taken away, quoted the Bible: “For whom the Lord loves he chastens. He smites with the rod every son whom he likes to have.” (Hebrews 12:6)  “We use the rod, because we don’t want to raise the hand,” says Carsten Hennigfeld. But he also says: “We dissociate ourselves from violence.”

How does that fit together? “You have to differentiate,” says the 37-year-old father of two, “between loving correction, without inflicting damage, and an emotional outburst as a slap or hit. We are accused of violence, but the children had never witnessed such an act of violence as this “forced removal to prevent immediate danger!”

The gap between the “Twelve Tribes” and the authorities thus runs along the definition of violence.

Father Obadiah Müller says: “Education without discipline does not work.” He stretched out his little finger in the air and says, “That little rod is only being used if there is a reason. Small children cannot understand abstract things, but a small stick they already understand. Thus they also understand that their behavior is not good.”

A good measure of discipline. The little rod. With such statements “Twelve Tribes” meet with incomprehension outside the community. They strain the tolerance of the rest of society and thereby feel on the Lord’s side, thus being right. Since the raid, they organize discussion evenings in club houses, where they even show the more or less frightened audience their rods. They emphasize that in other countries of the European Union, the beating of children is permitted. And that in the U.S. there are states where even teachers may chastise their students.

On the other hand, the Civil Code (Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch) says in paragraph 1631: Children have a right to violent-free education. Corporal punishment, psychological injuries, and other degrading measures are inadmissible. There is disagreement, however, as for how a violation of this paragraph shall be punished.

“If the child’s well-being is threatened by massive malpractice, the family court is obliged by law to intervene” says Helmut Beyschlag, the director of the district court Nördlingen. “Despite many calls and offers of help the “Twelve Tribes” have continued to discipline and mentally abuse their children.”

Father Schüle disagrees: “A forced separation from the parents is considered the last resort when all other means have been exhausted. But ten of the concerned twelve families have only now had their first contact with the youth welfare office.”

Michele Noterdaeme is Professor for Child and Adolescent Psychology and Psychotherapy. The Chief physician of Augsburg Children’s Hospital Josefinum has closely followed the case “Twelve Tribes.”

Her judgment concerning the actions of the youth office is at least reserved: “You have to look at each individual case specifically,” she says, “you can consider the action of the authorities quite critically.” But she assumes that the Court has well reflected the withdrawal of custody. “In closed groups and communities, a non-predictable dynamism is in effect, and I can imagine that the court has thought the risk to not be predictable and therefore feared for the children’s well-being.”

Obviously all the children are not happy to have escaped the ‘kingdom of the rod.’ Five have escaped from the facility, or the foster family and gone back to their parents. For example, Eva Krumbacher. The 17-year-old had fled eleven days after the forced removal. Meanwhile, she is allowed — as four other children of the “Twelve Tribes” also — to live with their parents by court order again.

Now she sits also on a green leather chair and talks herself into a rage until her cheeks are red, “What the Jugendamt does to us is terrible. The little children suffer so much more than I do.” She wears the uniform style of the community – an ankle-length skirt and a plain, high-necked top. There are dropouts of the community their age who describe life among the “Twelve Tribes” as hell, but Eva Krumbacher says : ” Later, I will  raise my children that way.”

Quite similarly, Samir Schüle expresses himself. He grew up in the circle of “Twelve Tribes.” The 22-year-old is sitting in the farm shop of the farm drinking coffee.

“Whenever I wanted to have corporal punishment, I went to get it,” he says, smiling. “He who has not grown up himself with loving discipline, will have difficulties to understand that! ”

He was in any case “grateful” that he had been chastised. He proudly poses with his sister and his mother for a family photo with the rod. “I am convinced that this is the best place to live.”


Samir Schüle, his Imma, Yerusha, and his sister, Zipporah

Psychologist Noterdaeme is familiar with the phenomenon: “Children are always loyal to their parents.” Even children from very disturbed family situations often appear to be very loyal. “It’s sometimes amazing, but it is a good thing.”

Have the authorities overreacted? “The younger the child is, the more dependent it is on the mother, the more good arguments it takes to remove him from the parents,” says the professor. “If a one and a half year old child will suddenly be separated from his mother, it means “a significant risk for the development. After the abrupt end of such a close relationship some children find it difficult to enter into new relationships. This can last into adulthood.” On the other hand also regular beatings could damage the soul of the person growing up permanently.

So, was the second action with the small children appropriate? Noterdaeme formulates somewhat carefully, evasively: The tasks of the Jugendamt are not easy. Their staff is standing between two options: ‘If we do nothing, we are criticized — we are active, there is also criticism.’ I assume that the Youth Office had good, assignable reasons. If there is no imminent danger, then the forced removal to prevent immediate danger is not justified.” According to the eyewitnesses in the home in Dürrlauingen there was — at least in the short term — no danger for the little kids.

The District Office Donau-Ries argues exclusively legally. “The Jugendamt has just executed the decision of the family court, which had taken away custody of the parents temporarily,” said a spokeswoman. Just because babies were breastfeeding they suspended the operation temporarily. “The mothers had enough time to wean, and they knew that the separation would carried out at some point.”

And County Chief Stefan Rössle says: “We must insure that no crimes happen.”

No, they would not want to abstain from chastising, they will sue if necessary through all the courts.

Legally, the procedure was therefore probably correct. But was it appropriate in psychological terms? District Rössle says: “My staff have weighed this very thoroughly. They are personally affected by those fates and have sleepless nights.” That is the situation. Neither party is really happy with the situation.

Again and again the parents of the “Twelve Tribes” drive to Donauwörth to demonstrate in front of the district office. “Our children are being held against their will,” a dozen members of the community are calling from under the window of the county government offices. The historic corner house has the roof gable pinnacles, from the street it looks like a castle.

“Do you have a heart of stone?” the parents are calling. A passerby speaks to the demonstrators: “You have no right to beat your children.” A few minutes later she comes back and painted with colored chalk a message on the road. “The freedom of one only begins where that of the other ends.”

The “Twelve Tribes” and the Family Court have accused each other of having exceeded this limit.

Sometime this year, the family courts will close their main procedure and decide about the custody for each child. “We will go through all instances,” says father Klaus Schüle, if necessary up to the European Court.” He and the other parents could shorten the process and end the separation from their children by renouncing the beatings with the rod. But that is not an option for them. Schüle quotes again the Bible: “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him, chastens him promptly.” (Proverbs 13:24).

The faith community with its 100 members, is thus determined to challenge the state and its laws. And with all their might.

Meanwhile, the one to three year old children have been separated from their parents for two months. They have not seen each other since, they were allowed so far only once to call for about ten minutes on the phone.