The alarm was raised by an extensive expose in the tageszeitung newspaper which detailed "anti-aggression" measures which had in at least one case resulted in a broken bone. Punishments included various degrees of degradation, isolation, and bans on talking, the paper said.
Many of the children at homes run by Haasenburg GmbH come from Hamburg. The city-state's former school minister Christa Goetsch told the tageszeitung: "Hamburg must take its children out of there immediately."
She said other states should also remove children from the homes. "Here educational support is being turned into crime, to abuse of those who should be protected," she told the paper.
The tageszeitung expose was based on internal docutments about how the homes were to be run, as well as statements from several children who had lived there, who described brutal discipline regimes. The children at the homes are aged between 12 and 17, and are considered so troubled that authorities put them in the secure institutions.
Nationwide there are 389 such children - twice the number ten years ago. Haasenburg runs three secure homes and two other institutes.
The tageszeitung said it gained access to thousands of pages of internal documents which laid out a concept of "anti-aggression" measure which came down hard on every slight infringement of a very strict regimen.
One young woman who was in the Haasenburg home in the Spreewald area of Brandenburg, filed charges, appealed to the Family Ministry for help and called on the state youth office to take a look at what was happening in the home.
The tageszeitung described one document which described how the children were to be treated when they were admitted to the home. This included between three and ten days of "total submission" which includes daily body searches and toilet trips which must be accompanied by two other people.
The use of restraining belts was often mentioned, as were restraining beds, all of which are questionable in secure psychiatric institutions, let alone homes for disturbed children, the paper said.
After several complaints were made against the operating company to the state youth office, Haasenburg launched an internal commission. This was led, the paper said, by Christian Bernzen, a Hamburg lawyer whose firm represents Haasenburg. He told the tageszeitung he scrupulously separated the functions. But Bernzen, who is treasurer for Hamburg's Social Democratic Party, is also the brother of Hinrich Bernzen, the marketing representative for Haasenburg, the paper said.
A long statement on the Haasenburg website criticized the tageszeitung report, saying all the quoted documents and statements were either not true or taken out of context, and that the company's answers to the paper's questions were hardly reported. It referred to one headline "Horror at the edge of the woods", referring to the countryside location of the homes, and said this was not the case.
"Even the headline was not fair, not to the topic, nor the Haasenburg and certainly not the residents," the statement said.
It added that all the documents were years old, and that the conditions of 2008 had nothing to do with how things were in 2013.
Brandenburg's state education ministry said on Monday it would set up an investigation commission into conditions at the homes run by Haasenburg. A telephone line and email address would also be made available for children affected to make confidential statements.