Frankfurt, Germany – After police barged into the Busekros family home in Bavaria, the family's 15-year-old daughter, Melissa, was placed in a psychiatric facility, and later long-term foster care.
The police, the girl said, told her she had been brainwashed by her conservative evangelical parents, who home-schooled her. "They never even tested me to know for sure that I had a mental problem," said Busekros, now 19.
The moment Busekros turned 16 and could legally choose where she would live, she slipped through a window at her foster home and returned to her parents.
Earlier this year, Elke Schupp missed a court date to answer charges of home-schooling her two young boys. Later, when a police car with lights flashing pulled up behind her on a German highway, Schupp said, she panicked and slowed down long enough to send her boys running off
into a forest.
When police caught up with them, she said, she lost custody for good.
"I told them I wouldn't home-school again," said Schupp, a nonreligious woman who said she simply wanted to nurture her children on her own, without state interference, "but they don't believe me."
In Germany, home-schooling is a crime so serious that families who ignore the law have been fined into poverty, and parents have served jail time. Some families have staged stand-offs against the police, or hid their children with other families.
The home-schooling movement is a mix of religious conservatives and nonreligious families – some call themselves "un-schoolers" – who embrace a barefoot back-to-nature lifestyle that shuns traditional schooling.
Both want the practice legalized, but some religious families worry the movement's anti-establishment wing gives home-schooling a bad name and harms their bid for acceptance.
"If the majority of Germans see these alternative home-schooling families, they wouldn't accept home-schooling," said Uwe Romeike, a conservative Christian who, with his wife, Hannelore, home-schools his five children. "People would think that they are weird, or at least that they look weird."
Earlier this year, the Romeike family was granted political asylum in the U.S. when a federal judge in Tennessee decided that the family was persecuted by the German government for teaching their children at home.
In many ways, the Romeikes fit the standard profile of German home-schoolers: Conservative, evangelical Christian, and opposed to sex education, evolution and fairy tales, which in Germany are often built around witchcraft or paganism.
Germany is one of just a handful of nations that bans home-schooling. While home-schoolers argue about whether the constitution expressly forbids it, a Hitler-era law gave states the right to take custody of children who don't attend school.
For many Germans, going to school is just as much about social integration as it is about education.
"Education is a social process," said Ludwig Unger, a spokesman for the education ministry in Bavaria, Germany's largest state. "In classrooms there are 20 or 30 people, and they come from different families with different cultural and social backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, and they have to learn tolerance. Therefore, it is necessary that they visit school."
Even private religious schools must follow the same state-approved curriculum that is used in public schools. And to a growing number of families, that's unacceptable.
People involved in the movement estimate there are 1,000 children or more who learn at home, and most of those families operate underground.
Each German child is registered with the government at birth, so when the child is nearly 6 years old, school leaders already have a list of children who must enroll.
To avoid getting caught, some families tell school officials they've sent their children to foreign boarding schools, or say the kids are enrolled in distance learning programs. Some families convince local school principals to not report them.
German officials say there are only a few families who home-school, and many are religious radicals, or as Harald Achilles, a spokesman for the education ministry in the central state of Hesse put it, "fundamentalists."
"They don't have tolerance," he said.
But not all home-schoolers choose to break the law for religious reasons. Stephanie Edel, who runs a website for German home-schoolers with her husband Jan, chose home-schooling so she could spend more time with her children and give them a more relaxed learning environment.
"Most parents just say, `My kid doesn't fit there. He needs more ... whatever,"' she said.
Though the movement has matured, with websites, e-mail lists and communal events for home-schooling families, a vast ideological gap persists between Christian and non-Christian families.
Standing barefoot in the center of Stuttgart, 22-year-old Immanuel Wolf handed out leaflets to passersby that listed the names of famous Germans who, like him, had learned at home. Growing up, Wolf said he spent his days bounding through forests and sharing stories with his
"We're not religious," he said. "We just want to be close to the earth. The world is so big, and there is so much you can do. Why spend all day in a classroom?"
Jurgen and Rosemarie Dudek are awaiting possible jail time after being fined and sentenced to three months for home-schooling their seven children, who study at small desks in their rural farmhouse, surrounded by shelves stocked with Bibles and theology texts.
"I'm sure they don't teach you anything about creationism at school, so you are just confronted with evolutionism," said Jonathan Dudek, 18, the oldest of the Dudek children. "From faith you believe in creationism, but it's through home-schooling that you learn there is another opinion, and you learn how to compare these two."
If he'd gone to public school, Jonathan Dudek said, he wouldn't have learned that there was an option other than evolution, and he would have been forced to blindly adopt the teacher's opinion.
"This is about a lifestyle in that we are more than just religious," the father said. "We live with the reality of God. And he has entrusted us with these children. We can't just give them away to a school every day."