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Big Changes Needed In Nordic Family Policy

Specialist Competence Center for Families and Children Needed After Alarming Report on Children Deprived of a Parent.

The security of due process rights for adults has come under question in recent years in public debate. Without doubt there are serious deficiencies in the safeguarding of the legal rights of children and young people, who are not themselves in a position to secure their entitlements. In parental alienation the child’s right to family life is violated by one of the parents who turn the legal system’s shortcomings to their own personal advantage. Responsibility for systemic failures is shared equally between society’s legal and social authorities. Ultimately, responsibility lies with the executive for insufficient direction to legislators. This urgent problem, which strikes one and a half percent of the population (the same proportion as autism), demands new approaches for the protection of children and families.

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In a new book on children subjected to psychological abuse in connection with divorces with custody and visitation disputes, forensic psychologist Lena Hellblom Sjögren reveals serious systemic errors within both legal praxis and social services. Her conclusion is that a completely new infrastructure is needed in order to come to terms with the problem. She shows that in essence children are totally unprotected against a parent who with cunning and ruthless manipulation wins social workers over to their side in a relentless campaign to manoeuvre an inconvenient ex-partner out of the child’s life. Such parents are successful “child stealers”, who skilfully camouflage their shortcomings as caring parents and have judge and social worker wrapped around their little finger. Recent neuroscience lends support to the idea that empathy disorder and malignant narcissism are part of the profile of such alienators.

Lena Hellblom Sjögren gives an overview of this societal scourge in her book Barnets rätt till familjeliv (The child’s right to family life), in the form of 25 case studies. What all these cases have in common is that an unjustified rupture of the child’s contact with one of the parents occurs through undue influence upon the child, whose close relation to “the other” parent is gradually broken down. This is deeply harmful for the child’s psychological and social development. Nor is the problem simply a matter of the immediate protagonists – a mother who influences her child to distance themselves from the father through vilification and false pretexts for different forms of obstructive behavior (for example denying visitation rights or abduction) or – with reversed parental roles – a father who obstructs and destroys the mother’s contact with her child. Grandparents, the extended family, and the wider social circle of the alienated parent all lose contact with the affected child, and the child loses out on the support from one parent’s family network while they are growing up.

The roots of the problem run deep. Inadequately trained professional groups within the social and criminal inquiry systems maintain, out of bureaucratic convenience or for other reasons of self-interest, a “market” for their dubious management of young people’s fates. We have acquired an incompetent inquiry culture which is uncontrolled, deeply harmful and moreover a burden on public finances. In practice it limits both the child’s right to unimpaired psychosocial health and development and families’ chances of establishing and maintaining the harmonious life together which the young so desperately need in order to successfully integrate into society later on.

What is the solution to this menacing legal crisis? Hellblom Sjögren suggests a thorough system change in order to bring the Swedish legal apparatus into line with the conventions on human rights which Sweden has pledged to follow. In her foreword she emphasises three proposals in particular:

(1) a raising of competence levels is needed in the legal system and separate family law divisions should be introduced in our courts,

(2) social service’s incompatible roles should be spread out over different bodies (as it is now it conducts the enquiry, decides, executes and evaluates its own cases without transparency, external critique or accountability), and

(3) special supervisory and review bodies which carry out independent assessments of appeals should be created in order to prevent the violation of children’s human rights.

Hellblom Sjögren’s vision is for a thorough-going program of reform: society shall respect children as fully-entitled citizens and put a stop to public connivance in psychosocial child abuse of the type that has been shown to occur in the present system:

• We must unite on a common definition of the child’s best as the dominant principle, valid in all bodies within the legal and social welfare systems.

• Constitutional demands for objectivity and impartiality in the exercise of public authority must be respected and their observance monitored.

• A family law system shall put the child first and not be based on the interests of the conflicting parties.

• A social services law should not be a framework law allowing loose interpretations – and room for arbitrary assessments in individual case workers’ hands must be limited.

• Case workers’ immunity and “infallibility” is by definition dangerous to society and must be circumscribed by restrictions – and individual responsibility for civil servants needs to be reintroduced.

• Requirements for methods of source criticism and the introduction of criteria based on empirically-validated research findings must replace the present power-based administration and its incompetent culture of arbitrariness.

• Adequate methods for harm prevention and assessment of harm risk must be developed and implemented as basic requirements in cases involving children.

• Effective penalties for the violation of children’s rights must be introduced.

Society should respond to an increase in the number of cases of parental alienation with an organisation for coordinated efforts in legal and social problem solving. A proposal has been submitted to the Swedish government advocating a Nordic specialist competence and treatment center for children and families damaged by divorces, with a leading role in the integration of the knowledge necessary for the application and development in clinical praxis of existing research, training, inquiry, and intervention.

Such a social investment would be cost-saving. Moreover, the proposal corresponds well with the humanitarian values embraced by all of the democratic parties (as well as harmonizing with the convention on children’s rights).

Since the situation is broadly similar in the neighboring Nordic countries, a common Nordic initiative would be advantageous – an arena which ensures the basic provision of specialist competence – something which is still missing in this vital area of social responsibility.

All the relevant theoretical and practical knowledge on children would be collected there and made ready for implementation. This demands a much-needed arena for interdisciplinary dialogue and greater integration of knowledge between the relevant professional groups.