Update: On January 10, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that German authorities did not violate a family’s fundamental rights when they forcibly removed the children from the family’s home because they were being home-schooled and left their legal status in limbo after returning them.
Dirk and Petra Wunderlich had just settled their children in for the first homeschool lesson of the year when—with no warning—the full force of the State showed up to take their children away. The four children, ages seven to 14, squealed in terror as uniformed police swarmed through the door. One shoved their father into a chair, ignoring his protests. Government social workers swept in, grabbing the youngsters and carrying them out of the room.
Their mother was trying to speak words of calm and comfort, trying to kiss her children goodbye, when another policeman yanked her aside.
“Too late now!” the officer snapped. And in a moment, the police—and the children—were gone.
The Wunderlichs had just learned how many rights parents don’t have in Darmstadt, Germany.
All Dirk and Petra wanted was the best for their children. At home, the Wunderlichs could emphasize the aspects of learning they most wanted their youngsters to appreciate … and they could ground that education in their deep Christian faith. That was not something a German public school could offer their family.
Soon enough, the Wunderlichs realized that German officials would not support their decision.
Officially, the country has signed several international human rights agreements explicitly protecting the right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children. Unofficially, state officials rejected homeschooling as a valid option, equating it with child abuse. Over the years, other families who had attempted to circumvent the state’s objections had encountered the same kind of blunt attacks that later engulfed Dirk and Petra and their children.
Despite these clear violations of the international agreements, courts in Germany ruled in the state’s favor.
The Wunderlichs’ commitment to directing their children’s education was serious enough for them to move several times to other cities around Europe, seeking a setting more supportive of homeschooling. After a few years, they came home to Germany, hoping that the government there might be less hostile than before.
It wasn’t. In fact, state opposition to homeschooling was still entrenched enough that local authorities confiscated the family’s passports to ensure that they wouldn’t move again. Clearly, the German government was determined to exert the final say over who trained up the minds of the Wunderlichs’ children.
Flaunting the state’s wishes was a risky maneuver. Still, Dirk and Petra felt they had to try. They quietly made arrangements to teach their children at home. Almost before lessons could begin, however, the morning raid not only shut down their home classroom—but removed them from any contact with their youngsters.
In time, the Wunderlich children were restored to their parents, who were afforded partial custody … on the condition that their boys and girls attend public school.
In Germany, one of the most basic of human rights—the right of parents to assume primary responsibility for their child’s development, and to pass along their personal faith and values—has been superseded by the determination of state officials to raise up a generation of schoolchildren who share a politically approved world view.
“The right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children is a fundamental right protected in all of the major human rights treaties,” says Robert Clarke, Director of European Advocacy for ADF International. “Germany has signed up to these treaties and yet continues to ignore its obligations—with devastating consequences.”
Clarke is counsel for the Wunderlichs, who have challenged Germany in a case now at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). (The Home School Legal Defense Association—HSLDA—is also supporting the case.)
“It’s a serious thing for a state to interfere with the parent-child bond,” Clarke says, “and it should only do so where there is evidence demonstrating a real risk of serious harm.”
So far, the most serious harm has been inflicted by German officials.
“We chose to educate our children at home, because we believe this to be the best environment for them to learn and thrive,” Dirk says. But the government response brought with it other lessons and impressions. “Our youngest daughter was only four years old when the authorities broke into our home,” he says. “She could not stop crying for 11 days. Her older sister has not laughed since this incident.”
For their part, German officials have gone on record explaining why homeschooling was so bad as to warrant a home invasion, terrorizing and separating a family, and goading them into a multi-year international court case to defend their most essential human rights.
It was important, officials say, for the Wunderlich children “to learn to deal with those who think differently.”
The ECHR previously agreed to review the Wunderlichs’ case, to see if Germany’s actions breached the right to family life and parental rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights. On January 10, 2019, the court will issue its decision. It’s a case with wide and profound implications for the parental rights of all of the 800 million Europeans subject to the rulings of the court.
Meanwhile, Germany continues to maintain criminal penalties for families who want to homeschool.