Melissa Busekros is finally home, but it took almost three months for the 16-year-old German to return. Along the way, she went halfway around the world, through a psychiatric ward, a children's home, and foster care-all because her parents homeschool her.
Homeschooling is illegal in Germany. A Nazi-era prohibition, the ban grew out of Hitler's worry that too much parental control would supersede the state's influence. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), Germany has about 400 homeschooling families. Most teach clandestinely or are in court. Parents who homeschool face fines, imprisonment, and loss of custody of their children.
Despite the risk, when disruptive classes made Melissa fall behind in math and Latin, her parents decided to tutor her at home. She took advanced courses in English and French and sang in the school choir at a community college, but the school she had been attending noticed her absence and alerted authorities.
The family skirted the police for months, even sending Melissa to Australia to avoid the state of Bavaria taking her into custody. But on Feb. 1, 15 police officers in multiple cars arrived at the Busekros home and took Melissa, then 15 years old. "It was like the Russian invasion of [Czechoslovakia] or Hungary," said Melissa's father, Hubert Busekros.
In custody Melissa underwent a psychiatric evaluation that found she had "school phobia." The state placed her in a clinic's psychiatric wing for two weeks. She complained and said she preferred being homeschooled, but officials told her this was the result of "tyrannical" parents forcing her into it.
After a quick stay at a Catholic girls' home, authorities then placed her with a foster family Feb. 16. The family "tried to make it good for me there," Melissa told WORLD. Every week, she was allowed one phone call home and a two-hour visit with her parents at the children's home. Nonetheless, she said, "I thought I would be home at least by the end of March."
As the months passed, Melissa decided to resolve matters herself. From conversations with her lawyer and parents, she knew that turning 16 would give her more rights to decide where to live. So on her birthday, April 23, at 10 minutes past midnight, she left her foster family as they slept.
She wrote her foster parents a goodbye letter and took a few belongings, but left behind most of her clothes and schoolbooks. She swung her petite 5-foot, 107-pound frame out her window onto the ground below, then trekked across fields and forest, gradually working her way home to Erlangen some 60 miles away. Not wanting local authorities to know her exact escape route, she declined to give details: "It's my secret," she said.
After some three hours of travel, Melissa arrived on her parents' doorstep around 3 a.m. Her mother was still awake, doing some ironing. With their eldest child gone, the Busekroses found it hard to sleep some nights. Gudrun Busekros gasped when she saw her daughter, and quickly woke Melissa's two sisters and three brothers.
For now, the Busekroses are happy to have Melissa home. A second psychiatric evaluation found the teenager is normal and not suffering from "school phobia," which helped along the family's appeal. On May 16, the family won a major court appeal that returned Melissa to her parents' custody. Her family plans to educate her from home in hopes that she can enter a university.
In most cases German courts rule against homeschooling families. "They don't want parallel societies," said Michael Donnelly of HSLDA, who has been following Melissa's case. Though private and religious schools exist in Germany, they often teach the same material used by state schools.
Germany's bias against homeschooling is similar to resistance in the United States 25 years ago, said Donnelly, when few states allowed the practice. But U.S. states eventually fell back on a strong American tradition of private education, which Germany lacks, Donnelly said. Melissa's gumption has helped the German homeschooling cause, but larger battles remain ahead.