Sweden: Taking Syrian Children away from their Families

Published on 19.11.2019
Reading time: 17 minutes

Sarah, who had escaped war-torn Rural Idlib in northern Syria and sought refuge with her family in Sweden, is one of 12 cases we document in this report, which monitors child removal by Social Services in Sweden, in cases involving physical and psychological violence, and parental ineptitude.

In suburban Huskvarna near Jönköping city in central Sweden,15-year-old Sarah was in class when social workers showed up and took her away. She never returned to that school. 

Hours after the incident, her mother learned Sarah had been transferred to a foster home in another city. 

Sarah, who had escaped war-torn Rural Idlib in northern Syria and sought refuge with her family in Sweden, is one of 12 cases we document in this report, which monitors child removal by Social Services in Sweden, in cases involving physical and psychological violence, and parental ineptitude. 

In recent years, this phenomenon has caused these future citizens, the new wave of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, much pain and suffering.

The Department of Social Affairs, known as Social Services or simply “Social,” is responsible for ensuring children are raised in a “safe” environment. 

“Social” is entitled by law to take the child into custody if it is suspected that he/she is at risk of physical or psychological abuse. 

Section 1, paragraphs 1 and 2, of  the Swedish Act on the Care of Young People (1990:52) read: “Care is to be provided [pursuant to this Act for persons under eighteen years of age ] for a young persons if:

  1. Lack of care for him or any other condition in the home entails a danger to his health or development, or
  2. The young person is seriously endangering his health or development by abuse of habit-forming agents, criminal activity or any other comparable behaviour.” 

The child is taken from his parents and placed in the custody of social workers who, unbeknownst to the parents, transfer him from one municipality to another, until they find him a foster family, the identity and address of whom remains hidden from the parents, too. 

Every month, the foster family receives 20 to 40 thousand Kronor ($23,00-46,00) tax-free, according to social activist Elizabeth Broome. 

For this report, we relied on interviews with Syrian families living in various cities across Sweden. All names have been changed. We found them anxious, worried about the uncertain future awaiting their children. They were hard to open up. 

Our methodology took into account the parents’ version of the story in addition to investigation and verification of the charges against them. We also include Social’s narrative on the reasons why they took the child in question. 

For that, we tracked cases in five different Swedish cities ―Jönköping, Malmö, Gutenberg, Helsingborg‬ and Stockholm― to ensure there is a pattern to child removal, and determine the scope of direct responsibility, starting from the complaint up to the court’s decision.

We obtained documents, photos and videos we cannot share, in order to  protect the sources, as they’re still engaged in jurisdictional battles with“Social”.

Since the outbreak of protests in Syria in 2011 and through late 2016, the number of Syrian refugees in Sweden rose to 166,000. Of those,  34, 000 were born in Sweden. That makes Syrians the second largest community in Sweden, second only to the Finns, according to “Alkompis” website (May 2017.)

“After I hit her, the day went on as usual. Everything was going fine.
But the next day,
she told her teachers what had happened. School contacted Social”

Sarah’s mother says they took her child after a family acquaintance reported them to Social for “hitting and forcing the hijab on the girl.” All charges the family denies.  

Two months later, a decision by Gothenburg’s court granted custody to Social. The mother was deemed incapable of providing adequate care for her daughter. 

The family appealed against the court’s judgment and are now fighting jurisdictional battles to take their daughter back.

Soha Abdul Salam (44) from Aleppo was granted asylum in Sweden and lives in an area near Gothenburg. One day, her thirteen-year-old daughter misbehaved and she hit her. The next, Social Services came and took the girl away. 

“After I hit her, the day went on as usual. Everything was going fine. But the next day, she told her teachers what had happened. School contacted Social. It all escalated quickly and Social decided to send the kid to a foster family,” Ms. Abdul Salam recounts, before she continues:

“I’m not against their culture or their way of raising kids, but we’re used to different ways. Unfortunately, they neither understand nor appreciate that.”

In an effort to help overcome misunderstanding, obvious cultural differences, and the difficulty for parents to learn Swedish, the National Council on Social Issues launched an awareness campaign at the municipal level, in cooperation with middle and high schools, where newly-arrived children are dealt with based on social, economic, cultural and ethnic factors. 

Such campaigns target middle and high school students, says Hana Stuplee, a Social Affairs officer in Västerbotten County.

The National Council made it mandatory for new arrivals to follow the social counseling program “Samhällsorientering.” In addition to facilitating their integration into society, the program enables the new arrivals to learn about their rights and duties, including information on how Swedish law deals with child care and related issues. 

Filing reports in different ways

Any person or institution can file a report at the slightest suspicion of child maltreatment. If Social Services decides that one or both parents are incapable of raising children, they can take the children away.

One Social Services staff member- who chose to be anonymized- details the filing process: “families get investigated in two cases: first, when a third-party files a child abuse complaint, such as neighbors or schoolmate. And second, when a family member, such as a parent or the children themselves request such an investigation, according to chapter 14 of the Social Welfare Act. Social Services then goes on and applies the law. 

Many Syrian refugees demonstrated against this whole mechanism in front of the Social Services Office in Ekho city―in the center of Sweden―demanding “the return of two little, newly-arrived Syrian girls”. 

After hours of demonstrating, they went home empty-handed, except for a 30-something man with a woman, all in tears, by his side. The two continued to stand in front of the building.

We later learned that the man, who hails from the Damascene countryside, came to Sweden in mid-October 2016 with his family. We asked him why he stayed on when all other protesters left: “The last time I saw my kids was when they got transferred to a medical center. One of my daughters had pain in her right hand’s fingers and had been crying. We took her to a clinic in the city. As the doctor couldn’t diagnose her properly, she was transferred to a hospital.”

“Despite no external swelling or bruising, the x-ray showed a small injury in the elbow. The next day, when we returned to check on our daughter, Social Services staff members-  from The Child Protection Division―came and took her away. Hours later, they showed up at our house to take our second daughter, under the pretext that she was battered and needed their protection. A hospital report had  stated both our daughters were subjected to violence,” the father adds, before his wife interrupts and says: “They stole my kids!”

Social, after receiving and verifying  a complaint, can take the child directly from the nursery or school and send them to a foster home without telling the parents. 

Within a week, Social must submit a request to the court to retain the child until a hearing on the mandatory retention is conducted to decide whether or not it is justified. 

And if the court decides that “Social” has done nothing wrong, the child would be assigned to a foster family.

Pre-packaged charges

Ramy, a father of three children, aged 6-8, saw the latter taken away by Social Services who has since been fighting jurisdictional battles to justify their retention.

The young father’s story began when he was accused of being an Isis sympathizer. Swedish Intelligence searched his house and found videos that made them suspect Ramy of entertaining “extremist ideologies”.

As inspectors were leaving Ramy’s house,  they saw a wound on his son’s hand. They submitted a report to “Social” in October 2018.

According to the first paragraph of the ‘LUV Law’ (1990)- which regulates the work and duties of the Social Services Council- every state employee is required to contact Social Services upon suspecting child abuse or any other inappropriate condition.

Social began investigating the information they obtained. On 4 March, and before knowing how the son got a wound on his hand and the daughter a burn, they rushed and took all the children away, including the third, a toddler. They assumed the cuts on the children’s hands were a result of the father’s “violent extremism.”

The law allows Social to take away all of the children if only one one of them is believed to have been abused in any form at home. 

In Chapter 5: section 1, SOL, the Social Commission’s task is to ensure children grow up safe and in good living conditions. The Commission is held responsible when it comes to taking care of youth in their family homes. It contributes to child care and education, and makes sure the child is provided for on all levels including health care. 

During their follow-up visits to family homes, Social staffers hold conversations with both children and parents. However, parents say Social is failing to fulfill their obligations. 

On 4 March, and before knowing how the son got a wound on his hand and the daughter a burn, they rushed and took all the children away,
including the third, a toddler.

Jürgen Anderson, a lawyer specialized in family and social affairs cases, tells us that: “The Social Committee must review each case at least once every 6 months and consider whether care is still necessary or how it should be redirected. In other words, Social must decide whether or not it is appropriate to take the kids away. If so, it must find them a residence during the childcare period. The Committee’s decision cannot be appealed except by the child’s parents through a competent lawyer and a translator who masters both Arabic and Swedish, who would be provided for the parents by the Social Affairs Department.

Ramy ponders the connection between taking his children away and Social’s suspicions of his “extremism”: “It has been six months since they accused me of extremism and took away my children. If I were really guilty, does it make sense that they let me free? Here I am today in my own house, and there is no evidence to support their false accusations. It’s crystal clear: they only want to take away my children.” 

Although the court has to review the decision every 6 months―before deciding whether Social should keep the child or not, or the result of the parents’ appeal against this decision―Ramy was unable to take his children back. Social provided the court with a video it described as “psychological aggression against the child.” The video is 90 seconds-long and shows the father telling his child who is in tears: “I’ll take you to the house of mice.” The court concluded that there is psychological aggression and possible physical torture.

Tempting the Children

In a seminar on child removal, last year in Stockholm, activist Elizabeth Broome said that “the Social Affairs Department doesn’t implement the law as it should. And yet, 98% of its reports are being approved by the court.”

Broome explained that it was useless for her and 40 other lawyers to protest directly to Social, because of the Department’s arbitrariness and lack of commitment.  So, she went to the European Court where she was allotted only two minutes to speak and shed light on this issue. 

“In 2010, 17,200 children were taken away from their parents, which was already a frightening figure. But 2014 saw 32,000 children taken away.” Broome added that the government spends millions of dollars on foster families. But something is wrong: Social tempts the children into staying and offers them whatever they want not to return to their families.

In Sweden, children enjoy basic rights, enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Sweden is one of the 139 signatories to the treaty which contains 53 articles that must be respected by all members of society, not just parents.

The child’s rights rest on four fundamental pillars: The child’s right to life, the right to development, the right to education, and the right to freedom of expression. The law criminalizes racism against children based on their color or religious affiliation. 

Also, it requires the parents to be earnest about play time as part of the child’s mental and physical development. Children should be treated as children. It’s prohibited to take advantage of them for any other purpose. 

Parents ought to take into account the child’s wants and desires, in order to nourish the principles of democracy at home and prepare the child for a social and political participation in the future based on a valid judgment.

The authority of the Social Services Office

Parents publicly accused the authorities of simply wanting to take their kids away. 

Johan Klingbury, director of Social at Falkenberg Municipality, denies that and says: “The Swedish society has an obligation to clarify the established rules and laws related to children’s rights. They also have an obligation to help people coming to Sweden understand the country’s culture. It’s not enough to give instructions about dos and don’ts. The issue is related to explaining how the system works in Sweden, and this is such a huge challenge for the whole society.”

In Klingbury’s opinion, the basics of child upbringing in Sweden are different than other, especially middle eastern, countries. Refugees who come from those countries find it difficult to cope with the norms here. They hold on to their traditions, which are unacceptable in the Swedish society.

A number of organizations have started to realize the importance of providing orientation sessions to acquaint families with the law and the fundamentals of child upbringing in Sweden. 

In a statement published on 24 August 2018 by “Alkompis”, the head of “Children and Families in Focus” said that the goal of the association is to “rehabilitate families who have lost custody of their children by means of offering them specialized courses in upbringing methods, which would help them, in turn, to get their children back from Social.” 

But child psychologist Anna Anderson says that “the lack of awareness among the supervisors of child care facilities of cultural differences with the children’s families, especially those who come from Arab countries, in addition to the difficulty of verbal communication, have accelerated the phenomenon. Children are not better off in foster homes, after all. Many of them complain to the school about what happened.” 

Getting the children back

“I’m on my way to meet the apple of my eye, my son,” a Syrian refugee in Sweden wrote on her Facebook page.  

38-years-old Raham is a mother of five. She and her husband decided they should seek asylum in the city of Helsingborg, in the center of Sweden.

Today Raham lives with her husband, away from their children. Social took all of them. They are in the dark about their children’s fate. 

“My husband is very nervous and psychologically unstable,” says Raham, “he lost his brothers in the war in Syria. He yells at the children a lot. The kids told their teacher who informed Social who then came and took all of my children. We were told at the court that the children were scared of their father, and refused to see him.”

Add tee the second hearing, Raham was able to take two of her children back from Social: “I knew that my children would not say that about me,” she says, “so I decided to see them without the permission of the Youth Care department, and despite our lawyer’s warnings. I was able to see them both, and was surprised to hear that they both were so eager to go back home. Eventually, in the second court hearing  we were able to get custody back over two of them, 12 and 13 years old, and now we are waiting to get the others back. My heart is broken.”

In the city of Malmo, Huda, a woman in her fifties, filed a complaint against her husband at the office of Social Services, after he hit her during a dispute. She and the children were taken to a protection facility. After a few weeks, Huda began to feel uncomfortable with the new life there and wanted to go back home to her husband. 

“They rejected my request to return to my husband with the children,” she says. “They gave me a choice to remain with the children, or return to my husband alone, leaving the children behind. I have no right to take the children back home because of the violence that took place, and should I insist, they would take the children to another family until investigations are over and the court decides whether Social’s decision was right or wrong.

Huda returned to her home, but the story did not end there. A few days later, a number of social workers, accompanied by the police, came and took the children.

Bureaucratic Obstacles

Statistics on child removal by Social Services within the last three years is classified information. It is not included in “the right to get information.” 

We contacted the central statistics office who advised us to call, instead, the central administration for social services. The latter refused to talk about the particular cases we are documenting, and agreed to give only information of a general nature related to custody. 

Anne Gardi Strom, from the strategic unit at the Department of Social Affairs at the municipality of Stockholm, says that “at times the court order can be applied immediately, as when the child is in real danger of violence, sexual abuse, addiction and other criminal offenses. The Social Committee decides when intervention is needed immediately.  Executing the decision may take up to four weeks of investigations.”

Bringing the children back

Although Swedish law requires Social to return the children to their families as soon as possible, only one in ten children returns home. The rest have to wait until they are 18 to be able to see their families again.  

Sara waited for one year to come of age, and then ran away from her foster home and returned to her parents’. 

Many children are too young to decide for themselves. This is even more difficult considering that they are, in some cases, lured by their new lives in foster homes. 

A Swedish TV report- reviewing 324 cases involving 994 children- points to the harm Social can inflict on children taken away from their families. Elaborating on Social’s incompetence and faulty procedures, the report says 150 children taken to foster care between 2016-2018 have either fallen ill, had serious accidents caused by neglect and poor care, or died.  

Despite all hurdles, some families do manage to bring their children back home. 

Soha al-Ali went through an interrogation marathon with Social Services officials.  For 2 months, she tried to get her 17-year-old daughter back. The daughter had been taken away after her school reported to Social that she was being sent to Syria and forced to get married.

“Detectives were examining my daughter and I simultaneously to make sure our stories match,” Soha tells us, “But they did not record my statements fairly. They told my daughter that we did not want her to stay in Sweden, that we wanted to force her to get married in Syria. They prevented us from seeing her during the investigations.”

The daughter was taken to a care facility, where an old lady helped arrange her return home: “We told our lawyer and the police, in order to show our good will and willingness to cooperate. The police eventually came, and took our daughter as a runaway.” Soha thinks that, “What helped was the fact that our daughter had just turned 18 a few days after the police handed her back to Social. She had the right of self-determination. So she came back to us.” 

The parents are victims

Experts affirm that the final decision to remove a child is the result of a series of procedures, where parents often find themselves victims of legal ignorance and social norms. 

Frida Pilo, a social researcher at the University of Göteborg says “It is important for parents and elders to make an effort to get information about the society they are moving into, and understand the daily challenges in their new environment, which will affect their child’s personality. The child’s safety is the parents’ responsibility, at home and outside, during leisure and cultural activities. All of this is the parents’ responsibility.”

Samer, a lawyer, thinks that “the problem starts at school or play school. Teachers’ suspicions of parental abuse can sometimes be far-fetched. Children sometimes lie about it as well, for reasons that have to do with being teenagers, desires of revenge, curiosity, or as a means to get more freedom or advantages. Sometimes they are egged on by a classmate to report their parents. In situations like these, parents should stay calm during investigations and simply explain that the report was untrue.” 

Syrian refugees in Sweden feel that the phenomenon is spreading rapidly. More and more children are being taken away by Social, amidst a rising number of asylum-seeking families who come with a totally different culture when it comes to child punishment.

*This investigative story was completed by Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism- SIRAJ, and under he supervision of Ali Al Ibrahim. Published on DARAJ.

Published on 19.11.2019
Reading time: 17 minutes

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