Berlin court gives custody of 2-year-old Ariha Shah to German state

The court underscored that this was in the “best interests of the child” on the grounds of multiple instances of suspected physical abuse of the child

Ariha Shah's family asking for a 'fair trial' through a press conference (photo courtesy @ANI/Twitter)
Ariha Shah's family asking for a 'fair trial' through a press conference (photo courtesy @ANI/Twitter)

NH Digital

Berlin's Pankow local court on Friday, 17 June, granted toddler Ariha Shah's custody to the German state and dismissed the parents' contention that the injuries sustained by their child—both times were in the first year of her life—were "accidental".

The court underscored that this was in the "best interests of the child" on the grounds of multiple instances of suspected physical abuse of the child by either parent or both (and possibly a third family member), leading to a skull fracture when she was three months old and penetrative injury to the genital area when she was seven months old.

The Pankow local court has rejected the parents’ filed contentions on the sequence of events, claiming that both the injuries—caused in April and September of 2021, respectively—were accidental. The court has granted temporary guardianship of the child to the Youth Welfare Office in Berlin. German authorities had suspected Ariha's parents Dhara and Bhavesh Shah of abusing her, leading to her placement in foster care.

The parents have been "deprived of their right to parental care of the child to avert the existing danger to the child" and the applications of the mother and father for the surrender of the child and transfer to a third party in India have been rejected. However, the court has allowed visitation rights to the biological parents twice a month for an hour each.

The parents are an Indian couple who have been living in Berlin since 2018. They were in Delhi on Friday, 16 June, and they claimed to have met officials at the Indian ministry of external affairs, requesting them to step in. In a statement, Ariha's parents expressed their faith in the Indian government and said they have confidence that prime minister Narendra Modi and minister of external affairs Dr Jaishankar will work towards bringing Ariha back to India.

"From today, we hand over Ariha to 140 crore bhartiyas [Indians]," the parents said in a statement after the verdict.

Speaking of the case, ministry of external affairs (MEA) spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, “We are dismayed to learn that the child was abruptly shifted away from her current foster parent to a specialised foster care arrangement… We would like to reiterate that Ariha Shah is an Indian national and her nationality and socio-cultural background is the most important determinant of where her foster care is to be provided."

In a rare instance of cross-party cooperation, 59 MPs across 19 political parties wrote a joint letter to Philipp Ackerman, the German ambassador in New Delhi, asking him to ensure that Ariha Shah was repatriated to India at the earliest.

The signatories include Congress MPs Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and Shashi Tharoor, Hema Malini and Maneka Gandhi from the BJP, the DMK’s Kanimozhi, the NCP’s Supriya Sule, the TMC’s Mahua Moitra, the SP’s Ram Gopal Yadav, the RJD’s Manoj Jha, the AAP’s Sanjay Singh, Elamaran Kareem and John Brittas from the CPM, Akali Dal’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal, BSP’s Kunwar Danish Ali, Shiv Sena (UBT)’s Priyanka Chaturvedi, CPI’s Binoy Viswam, and National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah.

The Indian government has asked for the child to be repatriated to India, to a Jain foster home, under the supervision of India’s child welfare services.

Bhavesh Shah, a Gujarati software engineer, moved to Berlin with his wife, Dhara Shah, in 2018 and Ariha was born to them in the German capital in 2021. Dhara claimed that Ariha’s grandmother had visited Berlin to see her recently born granddaughter. She "accidentally hurt the child", according to the mother, causing injury to her "outer genital area". When she was taken to a hospital, authorities were alerted to what was suspected to be a case of "sexual assault", given the perineal injury.

This prompted the German childcare services Jugendamt to take swift action, immediately taking the child away to foster care, with her parents allowed to visit once every fortnight or so. The authorities also registered a case of child sexual abuse against the parents. The assault charges were later dropped, but the authorities accused the parents of negligence instead.

However, the case against the parents was closed in February 2022, without any formal charges having been filed against them until then.

Over the course of 2022, a court-appointed psychologist conducted a thorough psychological evaluation of the parents. This evaluation was completed in 2022, with the expert recommending that the child should be placed with either parent in a parent-and-child facility, with the other parent regularly visiting her.

Though no formal charges were filed against the parents, Ariha still remains in the custody of German authorities. Bhavesh’s visa is about to expire and even before a court order came in on the issue, German childcare services shifted Ariha to a facility for children with special needs, where she remains today.

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