4 October, 2006
Child Prisons? In Sweden?
By Siv Westerberg
Siv Westerberg is a practising lawyer in Gothenburg, Sweden. She has several times proceeded against the Swedish government at The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, in cases concerning the rights of the family, in which she fights for clients attacked by the Swedish child care authorities. An earlier version of this article was published in the Swedish periodical Medborgarrätt (Civil Rights) no 2, 1995, and by the Nordic Committee for Human Rights in October of 1998.
Psychiatric clinics for children in Sweden today are largely a form of child prisons. Children forcibly taken away from their parents and into public care by the child care authorities are locked in since the authorities, by observing the behaviour of the child and its parents in this abnormal situation, want to gather "evidence" to the effect that the child should continue to be in the forcible custody of the authorities - because of its own and its parents' "abnormal behaviour".
As regards orphanages, it should be kept in mind that the number of parentless (orphan) children in Sweden today is very small due to the high average life span of parents. The few orphans there are, almost always have close relatives who are willing to take care of them. Considerable improvement in the standard of living for everybody and the possibilities of economic social support have had as a result that there are hardly any children at all in Sweden who have to be placed in orphanages because the parents cannot afford to support their children. Today, therefore, the orphanages have by and large the same function as the child-psychiatric clinics.
In the dubious activity which the taking of children into forcible public care is, the foster-homes constitute the element most inaccessible of all to scrutiny. In this field, private persons, with or without shady backgrounds, carry out an economic activity, combined with direct neglect and maltreatment of the children, which is unknown to the majority of the Swedish population. It is, for example, standard procedure that foster children of school age are prevented from attending the obligatory school.
But examples from real life are more instructive than long dissertations. With my clients' permission I therefore place before you four cases from my law-practice in recent years. All four concern the children of caring and normal parents, none of them drug addicts or alcoholics. These parents have also, through all the years of forced separation from their children, fought untiringly in the various courts of law to have their children back.
Daniela Wollmar was nine years old when the child care authorities took her forcibly into care. Her mother, Kerstin Wollmar, is a teacher by profession. Daniela's two grown-up half-siblings have testified under oath before the courts to the effect that they have had a good mother and that Daniela, too, has been given every care and love by her mother.
Kerstin Wollmar fell out with her employer, the municipality of Tidaholm, about her work as a teacher. The municipality's "revenge" was the taking into public care of Daniela, who was suddenly fetched one day from school and taken to a child-psychiatric clinic. For three months she was denied schooling. Then she was taken to an orphanage where there are locks on the doors and where a "sluicing system" prevents parents and others from entering. Here she was kept for three years.
Daniela, who had previously attended a normal school, was now placed in a school for retarded children. On the 2nd of January 1995, in a transport strongly reminiscent of a transport of prison convicts, she was taken to a foster-home. The address was kept secret from her mother. Again she was denied permission to go to school. The reason given by the social authorities for this prohibition is that they cannot keep the address of the foster-home secret from the mother if Daniela goes to school. Daniela was denied all contact with her mother or her sister and brother. When the mother finally found out where the daughter was, Daniela was sent back to the orphanage by the foster-parents, who would not be in charge of her if the mother was to know their address and perhaps get access to Daniela and be able to look into what they were doing.
Anne-Marie Paulsen-Medalen is the single mother of two sons: Jan-Åke, born in 1986, and Peter, born in 1984. In 1989 both boys were forcibly transferred to the care of the child authorities. Peter is handicapped and the authorities claimed that his mother was unable to take care of him. In Jan-Åke's case the major justification given for taking him into care was that the authorities considered him to be seriously psychically disturbed and that the mother was supposed to be the cause. The authorities have refused to let him return to his mother since they claim that he is still suffering from these disturbances. His mother has never observed any psychic abnormality in him; he was, on the contrary, unusually alert and gifted, and he developed well in every way. This was confirmed by his teachers, who said to the mother and her lawyer that they, too, had never seen any psychological abnormality in Jan-Åke; he was precisely like other normal children. Anne-Marie Paulsen-Medalen then called them as witnesses in court. Now the teachers changed their tune, however. No doubt under pressure from the child care authorities and perhaps from the school authorities, who work in close contact with the child care authorities, the teachers now stated that Jan-Åke had "psychological problems".
Handicapped Peter was placed as a foster-child in a family with four children, the foster-father working on the wharf and the foster-mother working nights as a nursing-assistant. The family had yet another foster child. In addition to the usual foster-child payment, the foster-mother received payment equal to full nursing-assistant wages, in order that she should take leave from her work and to concentrate on the handicapped foster-child Peter. The social services did not know that although the foster mother took leave from her night-work at a hospital in Gothenburg, she immediately took another job of the same kind at a hospital in Alingsås.
Anne-Marie Paulsen-Medalen understood that Peter was seriously neglected and mistreated in the foster-home. He had inexplicable blue marks on his body, and he cried and begged his mother to be allowed to come home. Her criticism was stifled by the social services with a threat of taking her to court on a criminal charge if she continued to investigate the deplorable conditions.
Her suspicions were confirmed when the police had to intervene in the foster-home on a midsummer night so as to stop the strongly intoxicated foster-father from killing the equally intoxicated foster mother. It then emerged that the social authorities have known all along that the foster-father had had a serious alcohol problem for many years.
The foster-parents separated. The social authorities have continued to keep handicapped Peter under forced care with the foster-mother, who, besides, is still working full time at her job. When she separated from her husband, she had her own four children and two foster-children to take care of, and shortly after that, she also had to take care of a baby, which her teen-age daughter was then expecting. She has continued to work nights and has left the night care of Peter to her 17-year-old daughter.
At one time during the forcible public custody of Anne-Marie Paulsen-Medalen's two boys, the authorities had both of them, then six and eight years old, placed in a child-psychiatric clinic for observation and diagnosis.
During the three weeks of their stay in a closed ward, they were allowed out of the house altogether six times.
The authorities claim that Peter is severely retarded. He has been placed not in a school for retarded children but in a so-called "training school", where not even an attempt is made to teach him to read and write. His mother, as well as several other people who have met him, hold a different opinion, but no attempt is made by the authorities to encourage the development of any capabilities that he may have.
3) and 4)
Alexander Aminoff and Frans Lovasz are two young men who in their childhood were under the forcible custody of the child care authorities and were placed in foster-homes in which they were exposed to neglect and to physical abuse and were for long periods denied schooling. Both were, after many years, able to flee from foster-home life through dramatic escapes.
After reaching adulthood, they have both tried to take the Swedish state to court claiming damages for the suffering they went through in their foster-homes during the years of forcible public care. Their cases have been denied admissibility to the courts. Behind the diffusely formulated decision of rejection, the reality seems to be: Swedish courts consider that he who cannot, as an adult, give precise information as to the day, time and place for every beating by hand, rope or stick that he was subjected to as a foster-child, cannot have his claim for compensation examined by a Swedish court. One also discerns a line of reasoning to the effect that the court cannot understand how it can be grounds for compensation that a child has been prevented from meeting his parents or has been denied schooling.
Both Aminoff's and Lovasz's cases have also been denied consideration by the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Must we conclude that the Court of Human Rights, along with our Swedish state, considers a vast system of persecution and harassment of families, carried out by our authorities with great financial benefit accruing to every link in "the system", to be in the best interest of children, while the victim who seeks compensation is considered with contempt and suspected of being greedy? When will European society be told the real truth about the forcible care and foster-home system?
The Paulsen-Medalen case was heard in The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on November 24, 1997. The ECHR delivered its verdict in March 1998. The only 'crime' that the Court found Sweden guilty of was that the Supreme Administrative Court took two and a half (2 1/2) years to hand down its decision not to review the care case. The mother was awarded 10 000 SEK in damages.