Translating the News: Parental Competence Cases

This took a long time to translate. I wanted to get it out there because I think a lot of people who go around praising Denmark to the heavens have no idea how anything works here because it is hidden behind layers of the Danish language. Sure you can google translate but how would you know which articles and what can you make of sentences like “Neither is self-evident in the municipalities,” if you do not have a smattering of Danish. I would also like to point you in the direction of Only in Denmark for a selection of news stories about Denmark in English.

I understand that you WANT Denmark to be a wonderful shining example of how to do things but it does have major weaknesses. As you will see in this article, some people are working hard to make things right but they face incredible resistance and are not always successful.

The cultural expectation is that professionals are trustworthy and know what they are doing. In the cases where only one or neither of those things are true, there are no safety nets. Everything is left up to interpretation and then set it stone, never to be interpreted again.

Denmark is also crippled by a belief that there is nothing to learn from “experts”. Everyone invents their own wheel here or else does What Has Always Been Done. Practically, that means studies of effectiveness or quality are rarely conducted. If they are, they are waved away by those wish to try something similar with such reasoning as “our town is smaller than the town in the study, we will be different.”

I get a lot of “Well, it’s like anywhere then! You’d get this in <insert country>!”
Denmark is not some Shangri La. There is a lot of serious incompetence which result in horrifying decisions being made. You have taken exactly my point.

Translated from: Methodological freedom does not involve due process in custody cases


When borough councils have to identify parents who are harming their own children, they have a free hand in methodology, time frame and professionals consulted. There are no exact rules for how the sensitive parental competence investigations have to be conducted, even though they are often key in the cases where children are removed from the home.

The result is that there is an enormous variation of how thorough investigations that judge the ability to take care of children are. Even though the investigations have become commonplace in forced removal cases, there are no minimum requirements in the investigations which are not even mentioned in our laws.

Therefore there are, for example, no requirements that a registered psychologist should be consulted or that the parents and the child should be observed together. Neither are a matter of course in the municipal boroughs. (As shown by a survey by P1)

In the survey, 61 boroughs gave widely different descriptions of what a parental investigation is. While some boroughs use up to half a million on observing the whole family in a family institution for several months, in some places manage to conduct parental competence investigations for a few thousand kroner, by one social worker reading the files from local government workers and daycare workers.

Lawyers with great experience in the area experience also a sharp variability in quality of the investigations.

“It can be very superficial, what happens. Perhaps, they are not with the parents for a long time or they don’t see the parents interact with the child. It is very inadequate in practice,” said lawyer Bjarne Overmark.

He has represented a normally functioning Asian woman, who was written up in a parental investigation as “retarded” because the answers she gave the psychologist were childlike and primitive – simply because she did not speak particularly good Danish.

No quality control

The president of the boroughs’ social service leaders Ole Pass admits that no one has ever investigated the extent or quality of parental competence investigations and that the boroughs have not compiled the best practice of which methods work  or even give the greatest assurance that the parents who are harmful to their own children are identified.

“I’m not denying that there might be a need for a countrywide investigation and a compilation of what is best in different situations. I just wouldn’t want any  standardisation because there are a lot of diverse factors in play,” said Ole Pass who is also against a definition of exactly what a parental competence investigation is. “It would definitely limit the borough’s necessary freedom of methodology,” he said to P1.

The President for Parliament’s Social Affairs Özlem Cezik (SF) has difficulty seeing why there should be a difference in how parents are investigated on Lolland or in Ringsted. She wants clear, uniform guidelines for boroughs, if necessary through legislation.

“I don’t think it is sensible that there are no professional guidelines for such an investigation. It’s a bit like when an organ is being removed, you make sure it is a doctor who operates on you and that someone takes your blood pressure and so on,” she said.

She points out that parental competence investigations can directly cause forced removals and that they must sharpen requirements for transparency and due process around the investigations.

“This has got to be set out in law, so that everyone knows there is a professional basis for these investigations and at the same time parents get the due process of a second opinion or a complaints procedure.”

Özlem Cekic thinks that the investigations should be undertaken by a multidisciplinary team under an experienced psychologist. In this way, this also ensures that all cases are assessed by several individuals.

Ample due process for the parents

As the system works today, the Appeals Board refuses to consider the quality of parental competence investigations because the law does not give quality requirements for the boroughs to meet.

But the boroughs cannot see any problem that parents can neither make demands nor complain about the content of parental competence investigations. “There are indeed ample opportunities to complain about the decision as the borough acts on the basis of the study,” points out the President of many years of social worker leaders, Ole Pass.

“The lawyers who represent parents in these cases ought to know how to shoot down the reasons the boroughs gives. That’s usually what happens in these cases, that the lawyer drags the evidence documents into doubt to shoot the borough’s arguments down. It looks almost like a court,” said Ole Pass.

He thinks that lawyers all too often are occupied with the parents’ – and not the children’s – due process.

Branded for ever

Lawyers experience, however, that they are appealing to deaf ears when they attempt to correct mistakes or misunderstandings in parental competence investigations.

“Unfortunately, I experience it far too often. Typically what happens is that what were hearsay or guesswork a long time ago in the case suddenly appear as truths in the finished parental competence investigations,” says Mona Melberg who is a lawyer with specialising in parental cases.

“As soon as the first mistake sneaks its way into a parental competence survey, it is virtually impossible to get the investigations content or conclusion changed,” said Mona Melberg.

“It’s incredibly hard. You can make a couple of comments but it is seldom taken particularly seriously.”

That’s what the parents of seven year old Maja experienced, Camilla Christensen and her husband Henrik Andersen, who told P1 how their daughter was removed when she was 18 months old.

“I have never felt so powerless. Never. It was horrific. They took our child completely away from us,” remembers Maja’s mother.”

Maja did find it quite difficult to maintain eye contact and had trouble bonding with her parents. She was born with autism. But the psychologist who conducted the parental competence investigation mistook Maja’s autism as some sort of developmental disorder due to her parents inability to bond with their child. The result was a forced removal, which took Maja’s parents nearly six years to reverse.

“The whole process hinged on the psychologist’s incorrect assessment. So it was done on a mistaken basis. The mistake happened, and now we and our daughter have to live with the consequences,” said Maja’s father Henrik Andersen.

No knowledge about methodology

Maja’s story is not the only example of a borough investigation overlooking a child’s disability. Some of these could maybe be avoided if psychologists got some clear guidelines for how they should investigate children and their parents.

Even when boroughs choose to use registered psychologists, they can be on shaky ground. No one has ever investigated what works best or even if investigations identify those parents who are actually harming their children. Therefore it is entirely up to the particular psychologist themselves to use trial and error with the methods they know, explains psychologist Søren Friis Smith, who conducts investigations himself.

“We psychologists are asked to go where angels fear to tread when we carry out these investigations. We actually don’t know anything about what the upshot of changing the design of the investigations would be. It could be important and very interesting to work out,” said Søren Friis Smith to P1.

Last summer the Social Ministry formulated for the first time guidance for parental competence investigations. But the guidelines are not binding and it is underlined in the text that it is optional for the boroughs to follow the because the guidelines are not connected to any actual legislation. Out of the 61 borough councils that took part in P1’s investigation, one borough revealed that they have changed the procedures after the new guidance.

Social Minister Karen Hækkerup (S) did not wish to comment on the administration’s opinions on the unregulated parental competence investigations because she was busy last week and on holiday this week.

Related articles