ECtHR: German parents did not suffer article 8 violation when homeschooled children were taken into care

European Court of Human Rights
European Court of Human Rights

A couple in Germany whose four children were temporarily taken into care because they insisted on homeschooling them did not suffer a violation of their article 8 rights, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled.

In yesterday’s Chamber judgment in the case of Wunderlich v Germany, the court held, unanimously, that there were “relevant and sufficient” reasons for the withdrawal of some aspects of the parents’ authority and the removal of the children from the family home for three weeks.

The applicants, Petra Wunderlich and Dirk Wunderlich, are German nationals with four children born between 1999 and 2005.

In 2005, the applicants refused to register their oldest daughter at school. Regulatory fines and criminal proceedings were conducted against them for failing to comply with rules on compulsory school attendance. They paid the fines but did not send her to school. The family lived abroad from 2008 to 2011, then returned to Germany but did not register the children at any school.

By a letter of 13 July 2012, the State Education Authority, supported by the youth office, informed the family court that Mr and Mrs Wunderlich were deliberately and persistently refusing to send their children to school, thereby endangering the children’s best interests as they were growing up in a “parallel world”. Two months later, the Darmstadt Family Court withdrew the applicants’ right to determine their children’s place of residence and their right to take decisions on school matters and transferred these rights to the youth office. It also ordered them to hand their children over to the youth office for enforcement of the rules on compulsory school attendance. It found in particular that the parents’ refusal to send their children to school prevented them from becoming part of the community and learning social skills such as tolerance.

Attempts by the youth office to conduct learning assessments of the children failed on several occasions between 2012 and 2013.

In April 2013, the Frankfurt am Main Court of Appeal rejected an appeal by the parents against the family court’s decision. It considered that there was a concrete danger to the children’s best interests as the education they were receiving from their parents could not be considered as compensating for not attending school. In October 2014, the Federal Constitutional Court refused to accept a constitutional complaint by Mr and Mrs Wunderlich for adjudication.

The children were removed and placed in a children’s home for three weeks between August and September 2013. They attended school between 2013 and 2014. In June 2014, Mr and Mrs Wunderlich again withdrew their children from school. Two months later, in parallel proceedings, the Frankfurt am Main Court of Appeal transferred the right to determine the children’s place of residence back to the applicants, noting in particular that the learning assessment had shown that the children’s level of knowledge was not alarming and that, in contrast to August 2013, a risk from Mr Wunderlich to their physical integrity could now be excluded. The Court of Appeal, however, emphasised that the decision should not be understood as permission to educate the children at home.

Relying on article 8, Mr and Mrs Wunderlich complained about the decision to withdraw parts of their parental authority by transferring them to the youth office. In particular, they complained about the forcible removal of their children and their placement in a children’s home for three weeks.

The Court observed that the parties had agreed that partially withdrawing parental authority, transferring those rights to the youth office and enforcing the decision by removing the applicants’ children from their parents’ home and placing them in a children’s home for three weeks had constituted an interference with the applicants’ right to respect for family life under article 8.

It found that the enforcement of compulsory school attendance in order to ensure the children’s integration into society was a relevant reason for justifying the partial withdrawal of parental authority. In the Court’s view, the domestic authorities had reasons to assume that the applicants had endangered their children by not sending them to school and instead keeping them in a “symbiotic” family system. Based on the information available at the time, the domestic authorities had reasonably assumed that the children were isolated, had had no contact with anyone outside of the family and that a risk to their physical integrity had existed. The Court pointed out that the lack of more substantial information was based on Mr and Mrs Wunderlich’s resistance to have the learning assessment conducted prior to the removal of the children.

Concerning the procedural requirements the Court noted that it was satisfied that the applicants, represented by legal counsel, were in a position to put forward all their arguments against the temporary and partial withdrawal of parental authority.

It further held that the domestic courts had given detailed reasons why less severe measures than taking the children into care were not available. It noted in that regard that not even prior administrative fines had changed Mr and Mrs Wunderlich’s refusal to send their children to school. Since the children were returned to their parents after the learning assessment had been conducted and after they had agreed to send their children to school, the actual removal of the children had not lasted any longer than necessary and had not been implemented in a way which was particularly harsh.

The foregoing considerations were therefore sufficient to enable the Court to conclude that there were “relevant and sufficient” reasons for the withdrawal of some parts of the parents’ authority and the temporary removal of the children from their family home. The domestic authorities had struck a proportionate balance between the best interests of the children and those of Mr and Mrs Wunderlich, which did not fall outside their margin of appreciation.

There had accordingly been no violation of Article 8.

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