BERLIN (AP) — Officials in Berlin said Wednesday they are in touch with Romanian authorities over an investigation into a German-run program there in which children were allegedly abused, but had previously been unaware about any concerns about the long-running operation for troubled youth.
Romanian authorities on Tuesday said they were investigating eight people on suspicion of trafficking and abusing German children who were allegedly “kept in a state of slavery” with Project Maramures, a program for children aged 12 to 18.
Romania’s Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism said searches were carried out and a number of children were put in the custody of child protection services.
The agency alleged that the program, which Romanian officials say received German state funding, was created by a German couple for human trafficking “under the guise of carrying out legitimate educational services.”
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr on Wednesday confirmed German diplomats in Romania had been in contact with authorities to offer consular assistance, but said the allegations were the first concern they had heard about the program.
“This is a project that has existed for nearly 20 years, and in the last 20 years no problems such as those now being reported in the media have become known to us,” she told reporters.
Similiarly, the mayor of the nearby town Viseul de Sus, said he “can’t believe” the allegations against Project Maramures.
“They had inspections from Germany, there are dozens of children from Germany, they have very good conditions, visits by therapists, teachers, and their living quarters are in a very nice area,” Vasile Coman told local media.
Project Maramures didn’t respond to requests for comment.
But Neubrandenburg University of Applied Sciences professor Werner Freigang, who conducted a two-year study of the facility ending last year, said that he and his students had been given unfettered access to talk with the teenagers one-on-one.
“According to my observations … the suspicion of trafficking in human beings is absurd,” he said. “All the children and adolescents were housed there by German youth welfare offices and the institution was in regular contact with the responsible social workers, of whom I got to know many during visits to the project.”
He added that he could “not answer with certainty” if any boundaries had been broken, but “what is certain is that the management has always taken complaints from children and adolescents seriously and in my interviews I received no incriminating evidence.”
Daniela Sting, a spokeswoman for Germany’s ministry for families, said her office “closely observes” programs offered for Germans in foreign countries, but first heard of the allegations from this week’s reports.
She said the ministry is trying to get in touch with local youth offices that placed children in the program to find out where the teenagers came from and inquire about their wellbeing.
Frank Jordans, Geir Moulson and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, and Vadim Ghirda in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.