The Guardian, 04.08.2001


Denied parents driven to fasting Hunger strike challenges German courts' custody practice By Kate Connolly in Berlin Michael Hickman has not eaten for 23 days. Tired out and gaunt, he tells his painful story for the umpteenth time, although it fails to quell his anger. Around his neck a plastic notice says '2018, 3'. The 48-year-old South African environmental manager lost his children five and a half years - or 2,018 days - ago, when his German wife took them to Germany. Since then he has seen them only three times - hence the '3'. And there is little indication that the German justice system will ever return them to him. Mr Hickman is one of about two dozen parents who have spent more than three weeks on hunger strike in the Alexanderplatz in Berlin in an effort to shame Germany into allowing them access to their children, who were all taken in child-custody disputes. The parents, from Canada, Croatia, Thailand, France, Poland, South Africa, the US and Germany, three of them mothers, say they will starve themselves until they see some sign that the government is interested in their plight. Germany is accused of being a consistent violator of international treaties on the rights of children, particularly the Hague convention, which it ratified in 1990. The convention says that foreign courts must return abducted childrens to their custodial parents. According to the office of regional statistics, 50% of the 150,000 children caught up in custody disputes in Germany do not see one of their parents during the first year. After the third year the figure rises to 70%. The parents' lawyers argue that there is no common understanding in Germany of a child need for access to both parents after a divorce. As a result, although the concept and benefits of joint custody are enshrined in a 1998 family law, in practice courts prefer to rule in favour of single-parent custody, particularly in cases involving foreigners with German spouses. "There is a prevailing inhumane view of the family which shows this is still a totalitarian society," said Matthias Bloch, a family rights lawyer who is fighting on behalf of some of the striking parents. "If the family breaks up due to divorce, the preferred idea is to make a completely new unit." The child can be forced to change its name to that of a new partner, described as the "social" father or mother, and the old partner is excluded from the unit. Any attempt by the old partner to disturb this arrangement can mean a further curtailment of his or her rights. "The Germans hate disorder, so this neat arrangement suits them very well," Mr Bloch added. As a result many parents are prevented from seeing their children, often for years on end. Michael Hickman's wife, Nicola, took their two children, John Michael and Sebastian, back to Germany in January 1996. Since then Mr Hickman has been fighting the courts in vain for, at the very least, access to his children, now 11 and eight. He has spent 150,000 so far trying to retrieve his children, and his business has almost collapsed. Once, when he tried to visit them at his parents-in-laws' house, armed riot police arrived and arrested him. The few times he managed to see his children at the local youth office, he says, they talked in quick whispers and were petrified and distressed by the social workers who sat in on the brief sessions. So he stopped seeking the sessions. The parents have resorted to starving themselves as a last resort, he added. "Our hunger strike is the only way left for us to get justice in the most inhumane system in the world, as everything else has failed." The German media have all but ignored the hunger strike. The parents say that government pressure has been put on television stations not to broadcast the story.