Susan Palmer (McGill University, Canada) and Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University, Sweden) writing from the Twelve Tribes’ farm in Klosterzimmern
On September 5, 2013 there was a massive police raid on the Twelve Tribes, a communal NRM in Germany. A hundred police (local and “criminal”) and around 60 social workers descended at dawn on the two farming communities of Klosterzimmern and Wörnitz. The raid came as a complete surprise to the sleeping families. The police seized 40 children from 16 families and drove off in 25 vans.
This raid was prompted by allegations of physical abuse. But when doctors examined the children, they found no evidence. “But they can´t admit they made an error,” one father said. “They are trying to construct a case against us, inviting ex-members and sekt experts for information.”
It has been almost five months since the Jugendamt (youth services) obtained a judge’s temporary injunction for protective custody order, which took away the parental rights of members of the Twelve Tribes. Today, in January 2014, twenty-three children (including babies and two or three year olds) are still in the custody of the German state, and the biological parents are allowed very little contact.
As one father put it, “I have no right to determine the whereabouts of my own child.”
A communal and millenarian new religion movement, the Twelve Tribes emerged out of the Jesus People movement in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the 1970s. Its founder, Eugene Spriggs, and many of his disciples had roots in Christian fundamentalist churches, where spanking one’s children was (and still is) noncontroversial. The Tribes advocate disciplining their children with a “thin rod”, and quote Bible verses to support this practice.
In Germany spanking children is against the law. In 2000 a law promoting “non-violent education” was passed, and it has been strictly enforced since 2008.
The September 2013 raid was exceptional. Normally, when abuse is suspected, the Jugendamt (Youth Office) is required by law to send social workers to work with individual families to help them resolve problems. Only in extreme cases are children taken by the state. In this case, there was no warning. This emergency action was justified by the concern expressed that the “sekt” would flee.
Three nursing mothers were permitted to stay with their infants and four older children in an institution. But on December 9 there was a second police raid – to the surprise of the institution’s care workers. Babies were seized and the all seven children were bundled into separate cars that drove off in different directions.
After the September raid, most of the parents did not see their children for four months. In January they were permitted visits, but only every two or three weeks, for an hour or two. These visits are supervised by a pair of social workers taking notes and parents are warned not to try to “influence” their children. At the same, the older children are obviously being exposed to anticult attitudes to the “sekt”. After four months, small children who live with foster parents are forgetting their mother tongue. Some fail to even recognize their own mothers and fathers. Promises made by social workers in the raid – that brothers and sisters could stay together – were later broken. The Jugendamt split up siblings so that children can be “free to develop their personalities”.
The Tribes worry that foster parents are bribing or “defiling” their children with a pork diet, television, internet, candies and toys. Parents report that many of the exiled children are not doing well. Some are in convents, others in shelters for delinquent teens. Two boys, one diabetic boy and one who fell down a staircase, have been rushed to hospital. But a fifteen year-old lad who broke his wrist has received no medical care. Some appear traumatized by being separated from parents and family, and are constantly asking to see a beloved brother or sister.
One 14-year old declared in court that he wanted to go home, but the lawyer assigned to him said, “He has clearly stated his will, but his will has been broken growing up in the Twelve Tribes, so this is not his will – and he should remain in custody “for the well-being of the child.”
This same boy later escaped out through a window and took the train home. Police recaptured him the next day, His parents took him to the higher court to be able to “declare his will”, and he was forced to return to the foster home while awaiting the court’s decision. Then he escaped a second time. Finally, the court acknowledged it was his will (or else he was hopelessly indoctrinated?). Two other teens took escaped from their institutions and returned home. You can read the 17-year-old girl´s account of the raid, her escape to Switzerland with her younger sister, and their traumatic recapture by the police, (see “Diary of an Abused Child” on www.twelvetribes.com).
The Jugendamt dates back to the World War II, when it was created to provide aid for war orphans. This expert advisory body exists only in Germany, with the status of a Guardian Council. It is independent and autonomous, and its power exceeds even that of the police.
The Jugendamt can enter a family residence on the basis of an anonymous allegation and, even without a court order, can take a child into custody. This often leads to pre-emptive measures and scrambling for evidence in order to obtain post hoc judicial approval of arbitrary raids. Complaints concerning the Jugendamt have been brought to the attention of the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights – many claiming that its employees defend their own bureaucratic interests and the cultural norms of German social policy.
Following the September raid, some parents were required by the court to undergo psychological testing. Although they scored high in the “personality” section, because of their biblically-based views on spanking they were deemed “unfit parents”.
“What they don´t seem to get,” one mother said, “is that they’re our children. They belong to us, their parents – and the German Government has no right to steal them!”
A closer study of this situation reveals a strong “anti-cult” bias at the heart of the conflict.
Since 2010, a network composed of ex-members, social workers, journalists, sekt experts, and worried relatives has been forming, exchanging information about the fanatical, fundamentalist, patriarchal “sekt” where children are beaten. There was a strong Catholic and Lutheran “counter-cult” presence at the court hearings. Sekt expert, Klaudia Hartmann from the Augsburg Catholic Diocese testified at the September 13 court hearing for the parents from Wörnitz. A Mr. Behnck and other Protestant sekt experts were consulted. Before the raid, on August 21, there were two experts from Sekten-Info Nordrhein-Westfalen to support the Jugendamt´s application for the judge´s temporary custody order. Ex-members were also present at that hearing. Since 2010, ex-members, notably the Reip family, have aired their atrocity stories in the media.
In June 2013, Wolfram Kuhnigt, a journalist from RTL, infiltrated the Klosterzimmern community posing as a troubled soul undergoing a painful divorce. He planted hidden cameras around the property and beneath the central meeting hall to capture on film the Tribes’ disciplinary practices.
Kuhnigt stars in his own drama as the deeply concerned investigative reporter embarking on a dangerous mission.
Scenes of mothers swatting their toddlers three of four times with flimsy balloon sticks are crafted into horror movie scenes through suspenseful music, lurid angles and a biased narrator. Edited out, we were told, are the “hugs of reconciliation” that normally complete the discipline.
We see close-up shots of Kuhnigt’s face wincing in horror as he watches his own footage, and there is a long narcissistic scene of Kuhnigt shaving off his beard to return in “disguise” to the Tribes’ autumn festival (although they recognized him immediately). We follow the whistle-blowers’ progress as he shows his film to the Jugendamt’s director, and to a sekt expert – actions which set plans for the raid in motion.
This journalist not only prompted the raid, he stars in the climactic scene – the raid itself. This film was aired on television shortly after the raid.
Considering Germany’s recent attempt to pass a law against male circumcision, a similar stigmatizing film might have been made about the Orthodox Jews or the Hassidim – but the Jews are still a sensitive topic in Germany.
Time is of essence for the parents of the Twelve Tribes, especially those with infants and toddlers. For even if they eventually regain custody of their children in the higher court, the court might decide it is in the best interest of the child to let them remain in foster homes – for the child’s “well-being” and “stability”.
“They are trying to deprogram our children.” one father claimed. “They don´t want the children to go back to the sekt. They are not just worried about spanking. They accuse us of ´breaking the child´s will´ – of interfering with a child’s right to ´freely develop the personality´. An ex-member told them our spanking stops with the Bar Mitvah – but then ´psychological pressure´ begins. So, when we teach our children about Our Creator, to be true to their own conscience, the Jugendamt says we are brainwashing them.”