Flexible friends

Halfway through eating our lunch of chicken and chips,
Tomas* suddenly leaves the table and resumes his
place on the floor, six inches away from the television screen. His
attention is soon focused once again on the cartoon that he was
watching until the food was ready. Calmly, and without any fuss,
Jens Gausmann and Maike Köpcke, the two social pedagogues who
work with Tomas, finish their meals, clear the table, and start
doing the washing up. Tomas, meanwhile, stays where he is, next to
an open bag of crisps, staring at the TV.

“He’s four years old. That’s the concept,” Gausmann
says, explaining why they do not expect Tomas to get up and help,
even though the lunch has taken place in the sparse studio flat
where he lives alone. In fact, Tomas is 17, but according to the
pedagogues has not developed the emotional or social skills you
would expect of someone his age – telling me that he loves me
within a few minutes of meeting me is just one clue to this. (I
later find out he also wants to marry me and show me around the

While I am taken aback, the pedagogues are not at all surprised.
They have grown accustomed to his ways and have seen at first hand
the progress that he has made towards more “normal” behaviour. Just
one year ago, Tomas would have greeted strangers, including
unexpected English women, over-familiarly by throwing his arms
around them. But over time, and with 17 hours of care a week from
the two pedagogues, Tomas is slowly learning how to behave more

The relationship that Gausmann and Köpcke have with Tomas
is intense, and at times, frustrating. During lunch Tomas starts
talking about Hitler, and makes it clear, with gestures, that he
would kill Hitler if he were alive today. Gausmann points out that
it was not just Hitler who was to blame for the war and a
discussion ensues as to whether people can be bribed to kill
others. The conclusion is reached that if he were paid to do so,
Tomas would consider killing Gausmann. Through patient discussions
such as these it is clear that Gausmann and Köpcke are
educating Tomas, both socially and with information, using personal
examples to help him think more objectively about the world.

They teach Tomas by example, acting as role models in a friendly
yet firm way that is akin to good parenting. They tend to see Tomas
individually during the week but every Friday the three of them
always meet together, go to the shop and buy food before sitting
down to eat, as if they were a family. By all accounts the lunch
date that I witnessed was “a nice one”.

Gausmann and Köpcke are social pedagogues with the
Flexible Betreuung (flexible care) team based in
Schanzenviertel – a district in the south west area of
Hamburg. To look at Schanzenviertel today gives a distorted view of
its make-up. The neighbourhood has historically had its fair share
of deprivation, but fashionable, arty boutiques have now opened up
alongside the kebab houses. On one of the main roads, trendy bars
and restaurants spill out onto the wide pavement on one side; on
the other, a graffiti-covered building used as a squat displays
banners and slogans.

The squat used to be one source of clients for the Flexible
service, which supports about 35 young people aged
15-21 to live independently in flats scattered around
Schanzenviertel. The young people receive between two and 17 hours
of care a week from social pedagogues according to their needs.
Exactly what the pedagogues do for each young person varies, but
cooking and cleaning – or at least making sure that both
happen – are commonplace requirements.

“There’s not one general plan we have but we expect to see
them grow up and become responsible for their own lives,” says
Gausmann. “We are teachers as well. When we go to the supermarket
we tell them to remember what they have in their fridge, to think
about what they need, and to work out how much money they

Many of the young people are unable to budget effectively: “They
may have Adidas shoes that cost 200 euros but not any underwear or
socks. Some don’t know when to wash themselves or change
their clothes,” he adds.

Without exception, the young people have had traumatic
backgrounds, often including sexual or physical abuse – at
the extreme end, the pedagogues know of one young person who was
prostituted by his mother. One boy, who has a problem with
aggression, will threaten to kill someone if he isn’t given a
euro when he asks for it, another has to go to St Pauli (a
neighbourhood in the centre of Hamburg which houses the red light
district) to visit his mother, as she is living on the streets and
misusing alcohol. The Flexible Betreuung service is a last
resort for the young people, many of whom have been excluded from
all of the other options, including residential homes. Most, if not
all, have committed crimes.

The young people tend to come into contact with the service
either through the city’s equivalent of youth and social
services departments, if they are local, or because they are
runaways who have congregated in the central station and come to
the attention of other agencies.

But for some children, working with pedagogues in the
Flexible Betreuung team is something of a natural
progression. For at the other end of the same ugly concrete
building that houses the Flexible Betreuung office is a
kinderwohnhaus (children’s home) for children aged
between seven and 15.

Here, the children live alongside pedagogues and learn to live
in a very structured environment – often opposite to the
chaotic way of life they have experienced at home. They have to
learn that things happen at a particular time – such as meals
in the funky, brightly coloured kitchen and diner – and live
according to the rules. Again, the pedagogues take on similar
duties to a parent, clearing away the breakfast things and making
the beds, once the children have gone off to school. When the
children return, the pedagogues will help them with their homework,
before sitting down to eat an evening meal together.

The aim of the kinderwohnhaus is to help children to
remain with their families – a decision is usually taken on
this during the child’s second year. Meanwhile, where
appropriate the children spend time with their parents –
sometimes there can be eight children in the home on a weekend,
other times just one. When I visit the home is empty, until two
boys arrive back with pedagogue Stefan. They have evidently been to
the supermarket and help Stefan to unpack.

Given that some children are cared for by the pedagogues from
the age of seven until 21, close attachments can form.

“For those kids who have been here for a few years it’s
like home. Some kids come back years after they have left us when
they have problems. They visit us and want to talk,” says Gausmann,
and this is demonstrated when a red-haired 22-year-old who
hasn’t been seen for some time turns up unexpectedly, in
search of a friendly ear. “To her I’m something like a
father,” he tells me.

The nature of the job means that the workers have to be strict
about where the boundaries lie. Gausmann adds: “We have a
relationship with the kids so we share a lot of our lives. But no
one knows where I live. In a few cases they have my number. A child
has only been in my home once, when I was moving flats and he
helped me in order to earn some money. It’s very important
for me to have privacy.”

Before he began working with the older children, Gausmann used
to work in the kinderwohnhaus.

“That’s me 10 years ago,” he says, showing me a man
sunbathing in one of the photos of group holidays hanging on the
wall. Then, pointing at a picture of one of the young girls he
adds, sadly, “She’s dead, she had cancer.”

You can’t help thinking he has a heartfelt story to tell
about every one of the children on that wall.

* Not his real name

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