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Germans ponder string of infant killings

Babies stashed in freezers. A tiny skeleton found in a fish tank. Infants suffocated in plastic bags. Germans are reeling over a string of cases involving mothers accused or convicted of killing babies.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Babies stashed in freezers. A tiny skeleton found in a fish tank. Infants suffocated in plastic bags.

Germans are reeling over a recent string of cases involving mothers accused or convicted of killing their babies. The grisly killings have come at a time when the country's low birthrate has left the government searching for ways to encourage people to have more children.

Many of the mothers have been struggling single women who hid their pregnancy from friends and family, gave birth alone and killed the newborn out of fear or desperation — increasing calls for support programs for single mothers.

And while experts say the rate of German mothers killing their children is no higher than elsewhere in Europe, the recent slayings have stunned the nation and prompted questions about cracks in Germany's much-lauded social welfare system.

Mom accused of freezing baby
In the latest case, police in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg said Wednesday that a 20-year-old woman confessed to putting her newborn infant in the freezer about three or four weeks ago, thinking it was dead.

An autopsy showed the child was alive when placed in the freezer and the woman, who was not identified, has been taken into custody.

In 2006, the latest year for which numbers are available, 82 young children in Germany were killed by a parent, according to crime statistics compiled by the federal government.

In April, a judge sentenced a woman to 15 years in prison for killing eight newborns between 1992 and 1998 and burying them in flower pots on her parents' property. The case came to light in 2005 when the caretaker of the house near the German-Polish border found an infant skeleton in a garden fish tank.

Earlier this month, a teenager scrounging for a frozen pizza at his home in western Germany found the bodies of three infants — his siblings — in the family's deep freezer. The mother was arrested.

Also this month, a 22-year-old-woman was convicted of killing her three newborns by stuffing them into plastic bags. The bodies were discovered in 2007 in cartons in her parents' garage.

Christian Pfeiffer, director of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony in Hannover, said relentless media coverage to such scandals has helped draw attention to the age-old problem of child abandonment, leading to more outreach programs for troubled new mothers.

"It's one case of the media's fascination with a story actually helping in a desperate situation," he said.

Low birthrate
At the same time, the government is trying to combat the country's low birthrate — one of the lowest in Europe — by increasing funding for family support programs, with overall subsidies worth $103 billion annually. The benefits range from up to three years' paid maternity leave to monthly subsidies of $185 per child through at least age 18.

Some critics have noted that other countries seem to achieve higher birthrates by focusing less on money and more on better support networks for women that help mothers combine study or work with child rearing.

Pfeiffer's institute is collaborating with the government on a new program — Pro Kind — in which young women receive free at-home visits from nurses and social workers during their pregnancies and access to pediatric care after birth.

According to Pfeiffer, more than 200 mothers have participated since the program began two years ago.

A nonprofit organization called Sternipark launched another approach, equipping hospitals across Germany with "baby hatches" that allow mothers to give up their infants anonymously through a slot in the external wall.

A spokeswoman for the Hamburg-based organization said 35 children have been dropped off since 2000 at its three hatches.

Preventing infanticide
Michelle Oberman, a law professor at Santa Clara University in California and co-author of a new book, "When Mothers Kill," said Germany's search for effective ways to prevent infanticide is more progressive than the response in the U.S.

There, said Oberman, the strategy is often to give a guilty mother the longest possible sentence.

"It takes more than just a crazy and pregnant woman to make this happen," Oberman said.

American mothers kill more children each year than German mothers, but Oberman cautioned against relying too heavily on statistics. From abortion laws to health care access, she said the social conditions that drive a mother to kill are too complicated to quantify.

And for every case that makes the headlines in Germany or the U.S., she added, there is no way to know how many remain a secret.