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Imaginary Monsters: on media scandals and social policy

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The loud media noise when it came out that the social services in Denmark had failed to intervene in abusive families affected policy. The glaring Tønder and Brønderslev scandals in 2005 and 2010, respectively, ensured that social services in the entire country have been fretting ever since and made sure to … distrust parents, over-act, and split families just to make sure.

The crying shame of letting years pass by whilst little ones were neglected and beaten, raped and prostituted has marked the public’s perception of the unspeakable terrors in other families. It has influenced how far we will go to keep all children safe. The fact that no-one had intervened before the children were already broken was unacceptable. The social services had ignored the surroundings’ attempts at sending out an SOS regarding the suspicious families.
This has led to the logic of calling for anonymous tips from common citizens, and to pay these tips heed no matter how bizarre or obviously vindictive they may be. Proof is not needed, and the police and courts are not involved even when claims of criminal offences support the ”social” investigation of a family. It is all seen as administrative decisions. Therefore, perjury is not an issue; and there is no due process protection, as the think tank Justitia warned in 2019.
Likewise, professionals who work with children are under the obligation to call in any perceived anomaly. And they oblige. With the logical consequences for the trust in the relationship between the homes and school or kindergarden.
spreads like rings in water when it becomes known that at the far end of any social case involving a family, the risk of forced removal looms. The children might disappear into a merciless machinery of changing pretence families and orphanages, with ever new case workers trying in vain to build rapport with the scarred children. Scarred perhaps by the intervention and not by the parents?
Some parents spend their children’s childhood fearing being misunderstood by their surroundings or run over by a case worker. Especially migrant mothers are fearful, as their families are intervened disproportionately. As are single mothers and parents with handicapped children. That is a fact. Numbers prove it.
Which all goes to show that foreigners, women who cannot keep a man, and handicap producing people are unfit parents. No? Well, then maybe something is wrong with the alarm system and the response to its ringing. It might be that public authorities in Denmark act on the basis of prejudice and target the poor and the different, the ones who stand alone and those that are under immense pressure.
And perchance part of the problem is that the social workers do not understand themselves as power agents: their self-image is as helpers. As saviours even.
It is an offence to their calling to address the social workers as powermongers. The more the parents fight to keep their children and therefore resist the power exercised by the social workers who mean well, the more the social workers feel that surely they must be terrible parents. And what any given social worker or child unit feels – that is what is acted upon. For they have the discursive power, and any other power as well. The parents have none.
And the checks and balances are not working. The National Social Appeals Board is nicknamed the Rubber Stamp Administration. City Court judges tend to trust that whatever the social services decide is probably the right thing. ”Professional assessors” are part of the system.
The social services only present the part of the case material that backs up their own evaluation. Appeals to the High Court of child unit decisions are no longer allowed on the grounds that it does not tend to change the decisions on the previous level anyway …
In 2013, the University of Southern Denmark published a report on the harassment of mothers that involved socalled ”stalking by proxy”. The title was ”Taking the Child Hostage: the stalking of mothers”. The researchers delved into a sad world of expartners using the social system as a willing weapon against the mother of their children.
Why do some citizens abuse the alarm system? Because they can. The world is full of scorned lovers, mad hatters and meddlesome mischief-makers. We cannot change that. But we can create systems that are not easily instrumentalized
Is that anything to do with the media? Yes indeed. Media criticism made the social services horrified of wrong-doing, but only of a specific sort of wrong-doing: of doing too little too late. No media until recently held the social services accountable for being over-zealous or simply barking up the wrong tree.
In short: the media did not follow up on the results of media criticism. The media had moved on to other scandals that needed uncovering.
For a very long time, stories of social services over-acting never hit the media. The wind was always blowing in the same direction: We must save the children. And who can argue with that?
The more interventions, the better. Best to do it preemptively too, like in the movie Minority Report. With the helpful tips from the surroundings in the role as the psychic precogs.
When Social Democrat Mette Frederiksen ran succesfully for power, she vowed to take an extra 50,000 children away from their parents across the country. Where did that number come from? Nobody knew. It disappeared again soon enough. But the idea lived on.
When Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen spent most of her new year’s speech preaching the blessings of early forced removal of children from their homes, Danish media finally got a bit antsy. Was that not a tad totalitarian? And why was the country’s number one power person so eager to deprive an enourmous amount of children of the incondicional love and nurturing that any functioning parental instinct offers? Why was she going so far as to speaking of forced adoptions? Was she not targeting migrants in a rather populist manner? And how was taking children from their parents her number one priority as the mother of the nation?
Are Danish homes really full of monster parents?
Again: no-one knew. And no-one checked. There was no real media outcry when the Minister of Social Affairs defended the Government policy with the argument that ”it is quite common not to have thick scientific support of” political decisions. (Try that speechline for size in Corona times.)
But the media were not so sure any more. Scandals from the other side of the fence came to light, like when the deprived mother Jeanette Strauss cried out her desperation in a city hall. Or when Fanø-based Julie Frey’s doctor husband was accused of abusing his children due to a linguistic misinterpretation made by a teacher. Strauss is homeless, and the entire Fanø family is still reeling, although their children were never taken away, and the media came to their rescue.
Investigative teams at Berlingske and the Christian Daily started uncovering cases of abuse of power and baseless removals. Journalists such as Mikkel Fyhn and Mathias Mencke laid bare a malfunctioning system. Both were then inundated with case stories from desperate families.
Alas, it might all be forgotten soon enough. The coverage stopped as soon as the COVID-19 crisis stole all the oxygen in the room. And with the crisis as an excuse, power abuse has worsened.
We need to keep talking about the role of the State in private life, especially in a country with a welfare state so strong that we tend to come to depend on it. Media need to keep checking in on an area where the powerful player is getting it wrong in order to please … the media.//

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