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Is This German Scouting Ritual Child Abuse?

Though the country's major scouting associations say the practice of "Pflocken," in which children are tied down, isn't acceptable, the timeworn practice continues.

German boy scout undergoing "Pflocken"
German boy scout undergoing "Pflocken"
Markus C. Schulte von Drach

MUNICH — It's spring 2014 at a boy scout camp in southern Germany. Younger boys and adolescents are cavorting about, practicing, learning and generally having fun. Then word spreads that a boy named Mark is about to be targeted for "Pflocken," so the boys gather to watch what's about to happen. Mark, who's about 11, has done something wrong, "something bad," and he's going to be punished.

Group leaders set him down on a table and bind his arms and legs, which are spread out. Gummy snake candy is then stuffed into his mouth. "Almost everybody thought it was funny," say some of the kids who were there. But some boys didn't find it funny at all. They may have worried they would face similar treatment one day.

The practice of so-called "Pflocken" usually happens outdoors. Online descriptions and photos confirm that. Four tent pegs are hammered into the ground, and the boy is tied to them with rope. The bound child doesn't know what awaits him, so uncertainty and fear are part of the equation. He's then tickled, body-marked with felt-tip pens and sometimes doused with water. There are stories on the Internet of kids being smeared with honey or leftover food.

How often this goes on is unclear. The Cologne-based Zartbitter association, whose mission is to protect boys and girls from abuse, reported in 2011 that groups used Pflocken either as punishment or as part of an induction ritual.

Can this really be? Do parents have any idea that their children will be tied down when they join the scouts?

The three largest scout associations in Germany tell us that the practice is very well-known. In fact, according to Kerstin Fuchs, federal chair of the Catholic Saint George German Scout Association (DPSG), it used to be a timeworn tradition. But the associations all express surprise that the ritual is still happening.

"We haven't heard anything about that for a long time," says DPSG spokesman Daniel Seiler. "We were assuming it didn't happen anymore."

Put an end to a cruel ordeal

Officials for the Union of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and the Association of Christian Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts also say they were unaware of recent cases. All three associations say the practice contradicts their educational principles.

The practice fulfills the criteria for the deprivation of liberty and is a violent offense, says scout official Carolin Harms. The associations reject anything "that disregards or hurts the bodily and spiritual well-being of members," she says.

Another official, Diane Tempel-Bornett, is equally adamant. "For the person who has to go through it, it's a massive humiliation," she says.

Beyond that, experts say there are dangers of lasting damage. "If it really takes place the way it's described by eyewitnesses, then it matches all the main characteristics of child abuse, more specifically abuse of wards," says Klaus Neumann, the officer in charge of the well-being and rights of children at the Professional Association of German Psychologists.

Harms says that group leaders who allowed Pflocken would have to count on losing their position and probably also their scout memberships.

"For many years, we've been making efforts to shine the light on every kind of violence aimed at children," says Seiler, who is also expressing surprise that the practice continues. "Violence and violation of borders have for many years been subjects that are dealt with in the education the leaders receive." That applies to all three associations.

Some may not perceive Pflocken as violence, and one of the scouts who witnessed Mark being tied down last spring says Mark wasn't traumatized. "He just laughed," his peer says.

But the associations believe that's far from proof that the ritual is harmless. "One of the goals of the training we give leaders is understanding just how far they can go," says Seiler. "That also applies to rituals that on the surface are just supposed to be fun." Even when those being tied down appear to be participating voluntarily, that can be a false representation. In any case, things should never go that far. "There are individual borders, and crossing them constitutes a violation of privacy," Seiler says. "Leaders have to be able to recognize the borders and not cross them."

Which is why group leaders during training are sensitized to what can seem harmless to some emotionally traumatic for others, says Tempel-Bornett. "Some kids find spin the bottle fun, but for others it's torture. Nobody should have to participate in any activity they don't like."

But why do rituals such as this one still exist if there's all this commitment to end abuse? "As a federal association, we are responsible for training leaders, but we aren't present at the numerous local activities," Seiler says. "That's why I hope that both girl scouts and boy scouts in the groups concerned will deal with what they've experienced by giving it serious reflection."

The troops are also regularly sent information and guidelines about avoiding violence. "We are proactive as far as violence is concerned," Seiler says. "Pflocken simply should not happen."

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