A brief guide to Swedish child welfare

A brief guide to Swedish child welfare

February 19, 2011
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Swedish child welfare is often said to be for the children’s sake, often they refer to “the best interests of the child,” yet quite often it doesn’t work that way, but rather becomes a business enterprise instead. This article is meant as a fact sheet for whoever is interested in the darker side of Swedish child welfare.

The aims for the Swedish child welfare are detailed in Socialtjänstlagen (2001:453), abbreviated SoL in Swedish; its official English name is the Social Services Act, abbreviated SSA. In article 5, paragraph 1, this is stated:

“The social council shall

– work for children and youth to grow up under safe and good terms,

– in close cooperation with the homes see to it that children and youth who risk developing unfavourably receive the protection and support they need and, if the concern for the best interests of the minor justifies it, care and fosterage outside one’s own home”

Care outside one’s own home takes place either in familjehem, which directly translates into “family homes,” and is how one refers to foster families today; or in HVB-hem, “homes for care and living,” which are the modern orphanages and are run by staff. If things go really bad, you can be placed at an ungdomshem, “youth home,” after the social services feels you’ve not been behaving properly at an orphanage. These are prisons, sometimes surrounded by barbed wire, but in spite of this, you don’t have to commit a crime to be placed there.

Even though it’s the social council that plans the proposed care, it’s intended to be voluntary, in accordance with the Social Services Act. If a voluntary placement can’t be arranged, the child or his or her parents just don’t understand what’s in the “best interests of the child,” the authorities can resort to using Lag (1990:52) med särskilda bestämmelser om vård av unga, LVU, or as is its official English name: Care of Young Persons Special Provisions Act, or CYPA for short, the law on forced care for minors. Paragraphs of significance here are the environment paragraph, § 2, which enables care placement due to “physical or mental abuse, improper exploitation, lack in care or any other condition in the home.” This paragraph is used if the social council can spot some form of weakness in the family structure or in the people that otherwise reside in the home.

  • § 3, the behaviour paragraph, lets the social council take a minor below the age of 20 into care due to “abuse of addictive drugs, criminal activity or any other socially destructive behaviour.” A study from the late 90’s found that the diffuse term “socially destructive behaviour” was the one used the most to justify care placements. Hence in Sweden, you don’t have to commit a crime to be deprived of your liberty, it’s enough that you act in a way that a social worker finds strange.
  • § 6, immediate seizure; this paragraph lets a single social worker without presenting any written warrant or anything of the sort call the police and demand that they take a person into care. The law prescribes that an administrative court is to try the care placement within a week, but this isn’t very adhered to.
  • § 12, special youth homes. “For care of minors who due to some reason stated in § 3 need to be under especially careful supervision, there shall be special youth homes.” Notice the lack of any requirement to have committed a crime.
  • § 14 gives the social services the right to hide a child from its parents and not let them know where the child has been placed.
  • § 22, preventive measures. This paragraph enables “medium force,” open measures that the minor can be forced to attend if it’s felt that he or she might at a later stage otherwise fall under the criteria of § 3.
  • § 24, removal prohibition. If you’ve agreed to voluntary care, the social services can extend the care forever, until you reach the age where you can’t be taken into care any more.

In Swedish child welfare and social care aimed at preventing crime, actual breaches of the law and actual guilt don’t matter very much, rather one discusses various forms of personal “problems,” which can include such things as depression and self-injurious behaviour. Even a long history of violent crime is rather described as “behavioural problems” to be treated than as the wilful acts of this individual. Sweden has abandoned the old moralistic perspective which all societies have otherwise adhered to, and become a therapeutic state where everything is to be corrected through care, whether someone has done something in the past or could potentially do something in the future. Naturally you end up having to do a lot of treatment since people then have nothing to gain from taking responsibility for their lives – this has no impact on whether they’re taken in for “care” or not.

In practice, this means that one doesn’t apply any form of “differentiation,” to use a professional term, apart from the division between LVU and LSU (the law on secure youth care; these placements have to be determined by a court of law). At the youth homes, there are certainly different rooms for LVU and LSU placements, but they still reside under the same roof and are subject to the same care. So a self-destructing teenager “guilty” of perhaps truancy or self-injury can be placed with rapists and killers. Eddie Jönsson, a 17-year-old man who in January of 2004 along with his friend clubbed two 18-year-old girls to death, what’s usually referred to as dubbelmordet på Hallandsåsen, the double-murder at Hallandsåsen, was sentenced to secure youth care and placed at a youth home which he ended up running away from.

There are however quite a few who are placed at these youth homes without having done anything to deserve it. In Vård av ungdomar med sociala problem – en forskningsöversikt, “Care of youth with social problems – a research overview,” a study is presented of 749 juveniles who had been taken into various youth homes in the Stockholm area during the earlier 90’s. The researcher had divided the inmates into different categories – the crime profile, the substance abuse profile, the mental illness profile, the sexual problems profile as well as something he called “profile group 0.” Characteristic of this last group was that in spite of constituting more than a third of the population (255 out of 749), they hadn’t displayed worse behavioural problems than the general public. They had been placed with labels such as “emotional disorder,” “learning and school problems” and similar. The reason they had been placed there was mostly the social status of their parents – these were often former prison inmates and such. Even though these people so far had managed to get their children to behave, society took for granted that they would follow in the footsteps of their parents and didn’t give them any chance whatsoever.

Other research of interest is the one made by Bo Vinnerlung at the National Board of Health and Welfare. Of particular value is an essay he published in English, Into adulthood: a follow-up study of 718 young people who were placed in out-of-home care during their teens, where among other things he shows that 6% of Swedish minors, or roughly two in every school class, were reported to the social services every year. The surveillance state is well outfitted here in Sweden. On page eight, statistics are presented which show that for the ones who were placed for behavioural problems, only 8.2% had done well as adults with the criteria used there, compared to 70% of the general public. Among those who had been placed at youth homes under the LSU law, 70% had ended up in prison or had died by the age of 25, and not a single person was doing well. The country’s preventive social care apparently works very well.

In SOSFS 1997:15, on the application of the LVU law, one lists the reasons under which children and youth can be taken into care. Here one includes that the parents might be arguing, that a parent tells his or her child that he or she will be allowed to return home from voluntary care, that the family might move abroad, that a minor is using steroids, that one uses spanking as a way of raising one’s children and lots of other stuff. It’s simply the devil’s manual to every possible reason for taking someone into custody.

Something else to be addressed is just what hides behind the so called “environmental” reasons for care placements. Is it really abuse, or is it simply that the family is poor? In Social rapport 2006, on page 273, there’s a comparison between two different groups of families. In affluent families, only one out of 2,000 children were taken into foster care before seven years of age, while the corresponding figure for what one could call “welfare mothers” was one in seven.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll surely enjoy my book “The Madhouse: A critical study of Swedish society.” Go here for the book hub page on my web page, or here for the Amazon page, where it’s available both in print and in electronic format.

Also see this video clip I made about Swedish child welfare:

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Daniel Hammarberg

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