Girl hidden in Germany for years by family prompts inquiry

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There is widespread disbelief that a girl could remain hidden for so long in a small town of 24,000 people
By Jenny Hill
BBC Berlin correspondent

An eight-year-old girl’s mother and grandparents are being investigated after German prosecutors say she was locked away for seven years.

She was finally freed from the house at the end of September and is now in foster care.

Welfare officials say she struggles with everyday tasks like climbing the stairs. German reports say she had never seen a forest or a meadow.

Her mother falsely told the authorities that they had moved to Italy.

The house in Attendorn in the Sauerland area of western Germany is unremarkable. A short flight of steps leads to a brown front door.

But behind these white painted walls, prosecutors say, a mother and her parents kept the girl locked away from the world for seven years. During that time, they believe, she had no contact with another person, never went to school, never spent time outdoors.

They say there’s no evidence that she was physically abused or malnourished.

The head of the local child welfare department, Michael Färber, says she can read and do maths, but struggles with more day-to-day tasks: “We’ll have to see how that works out.”

She’s now under the care of child psychologists. An expert from the national Child Protection Association told German media: “The world is now upside down for the child. It will feel like being on another planet.”

Prosecutors are now trying to determine what happened – and how. They say the mother and grandparents have remained silent about the case and that they’ve not yet been able to establish a motive.

But it’s widely assumed that the mother may have been trying to keep the child away from her father, from whom she’d separated shortly before the girl was born.

She’d reportedly forbidden him from having contact with the child and when he turned to the family courts, they awarded joint custody in 2016.

By then, German authorities – and the father – believed the mother had left the country with her daughter.

In 2015, she officially notified them that she had moved to Italy. Prosecutors now believe that in reality, she never left and they were living with the girl’s maternal grandparents who, it appears, helped her to maintain the pretence.

There is widespread disbelief that a child could remain hidden, apparently unnoticed, for so long in a small town of 24,000 people.

It has emerged that the authorities received two tip-offs about the girl in recent years, but they say that when they investigated, there was no solid evidence that a child was being kept at the property.

It was in June this year that a couple reported having seen the little girl, triggering an investigation that established she and her mother had never lived in Italy, and that led to their discovery at the grandparents’ house.

The grandparents and the mother are being investigated on suspicion of unlawful imprisonment and abuse. Prosecutors say the mother could face up to 10 years in jail, but to date, no charges have been brought.

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