In 2021, the German child welfare service took custody of a seven-month baby of an Indian couple in Berlin. Two years later, they are still struggling to get her back. While it is impossible to determine what exactly happened here, the case points to the plight of migrant families—who are often targeted for parenting crimes across Europe.
Researched by: Rachel John and Aarthi Ramnath
Tell me about this baby…
How it started: Software developer Bhavesh Shah moved to Berlin in 2018 for a job—along with his wife Dhara. They had a baby, Ariha, in 2021. Later that year, the parents took the child to the hospital due to an injury in the genital area. The child welfare services suspected sexual abuse and took the child into foster care.
The parents’ version: They blame the injury on the baby’s paternal grandmother—who “accidentally hurt the child” in her “outer genital area.” But sources in the German government say the child had two other injuries—including evidence of a head injury. To which, Dhara Shah says:
One time, Ariha slipped after her oil massage and struck her head on the counter where her bathtub had been placed, and in another, she was accidentally injured while playing without her diaper, which was left off for a few hours every evening owing to diaper rash, the mother said. This injury was aggravated by an invasive inspection by the paternal grandmother, she added.
The timeline: The initial decision to take custody of the child turned into a long legal battle—as the German childcare services Jugendamt seemed to keep moving the goalpost.
- At the outset, the agency asked the parents to sign some documents transferring custody.
- The forms were in German and they were only assigned an Urdu translator. They were not made aware of their legal rights.
- The child was put in foster care—and the parents were charged with sexual abuse. But they were allowed to visit her once every two weeks.
- Then the charges were changed from assault to negligence—and even that case was closed due to lack of evidence in February, 2022.
- The Jugendamt instead filed for permanent custody and the termination of parental rights—a legal battle that continues to this day.
- A court-appointed psychologist, however, recommends that the child be released to one parent in a monitored facility—while the other parent is given visiting rights.
What the Germans say: The government has refused to officially comment on the case citing privacy concerns. But some sources told The Hindu that the child had suffered “most horrible injuries”—making it clear that the parents had failed to protect her. And while criminal charges have been dropped, the Shahs remain “in violation of conventions of safety of children”:
Our long term goal would be to help bring her to safety and to her family in her country. But the court has to decide whether this will be possible, and it doesn’t matter if the parents are Indian, German, Turkish or Norwegian, the rules would be the same.
Where we are now: The Indian government has forcefully advocated for the Shahs—but to little avail. Most recently, it expressed outrage at the sudden decision to move Ariha out of the care of a foster parent—and into a facility for children with special needs. Fifty nine MPs—cutting across party lines—recently wrote an open letter urging the German authorities to transfer the child to the care of a Jain foster family in India:
The foster family is willing to accommodate the parents in their home so as to carry out the court psychologist’s recommendation for the child to be with the parents under supervision. This is a fair way to resolve the issue, by respecting the German court appointed psychologist's recommendation and implementing it under the supervision of Indian authorities, here in India.
OTOH, authorities are trying to find an Indian family in Germany instead.
Isn’t this like that Rani Mukherji movie?
The recent release of ‘Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway’ on May 15 is one reason why the Shah case is suddenly getting a lot of attention. The movie was based on the memoir of Sagarika Chakraborty—whose kids were taken away by Norwegian authorities back in 2011. There the case was a little more straightforward:
- Sagarika and her husband Anurup Bhattacharya were living in Norway with their two young children.
- Around 2010, her older child—the two-year old boy—started displaying signs of autism—and developed behavioural problems.
- The child welfare agency known as Barnevernet sent observers to their home—to help the parents.
- Instead, they collected evidence of “improper parenting” and took both kids away.
- After a long legal battle, they were finally turned over to their paternal uncle and grandparent.
- Sagarika finally regained custody of her children after winning a custody battle with her now ex-husband in India.
A similar pattern: As with the case of the Shahs, Barnevernet seems to have seized on the slightest excuse to take the kids—at least in the version presented in the media:
A few months later, when the matter went to the court, Barnevernet defended its actions highlighting a host of concerns with regard to Chakraborty and her husband's style of parenting. Barnevernet told the court: Chakraborty fed the kids with her hands (a common South Asian practice); she made a threatening gesture to her son (she showed the palm of her hand when he was throwing food on the floor); she left Aishwarya alone while changing her diaper.
However, in an Indian Express op-ed the Norwegian ambassador insisted that such minor issues would not be a reason for taking custody of a child—nor would an occasional slap.
But, but, but: Barnevernet is notorious for its vague definition of good parenting: “Most cases now don't involve parental violence, though, or alcohol- or drug-abuse. The commonest reason for a care order now is simply ‘lack of parenting skills’.” There have been several high profile cases involving other migrant parents—and Norwegian citizens, as well. In 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) issued six judgments finding Norway guilty of violating human rights in child protection cases.
Data point to note: By the end of 2021, as many as 9,938 minors were living with foster parents or institutions in Norway. Of them, 37% were from some kind of migrant background—which is disproportionately high since immigrants only account for 16% of the population. One local journalist calculated that children with a foreign mother are four times more likely than other children in Norway to be forcibly taken by the state.
Not just Norway: Last year, Middle Eastern and African migrants took to the streets to protest against Sweden’s child protection services. As one leading politician says, child protection services are simply tougher on foreign parents:
The social services agency's justification for taking a child from a Swedish family is not the same as the reason for taking a child from a Muslim and immigrant family. Formidable prejudices come into play for Muslim and immigrant families.
The bottomline: The situation in places like Germany is a dangerous form of ‘mission creep.’ Lawyer Suranya Aiyar sums it up best:
[Child protection] is set up to surveil families through state schools, hospitals and welfare agencies, and to confiscate children, if required. The assumption is that family is a place of hidden abuse of the child. An elaborate state machinery is set up to place such children in foster care or adoption. Over time, the threshold for intervention falls and the amount of money budgeted for child services goes up per child. Social workers act as police and judge for all practical purposes and judges tend to rubber stamp their decisions. Those targeted tend not to have the wherewithal to fight a complex legal battle. The system goes after the poor, the unemployed, isolated single mothers and newly arrived immigrants. It is an Orwellian nightmare.
For more on Ariha Shah’s case, read Indian Express and The Telegraph. TRT World has more on Barnevernet’s role in the Sagarika Chakraborty case. BBC News looks at the horror stories involving Barnevernet and other migrant families. Food for thought: this Indian Express op-ed on the abysmal lack of protection for children in India—something to keep in mind when we get agitated about child welfare services elsewhere.