Foster care - which Sweden wanted for Malaysian children

By Marianne Haslev Skanland
professor emeritus, Oslo, Norway

This article was first published in Free Malaysia Today, with the title
The dark side of Swedish foster care, on 17 February 2014.

It is the last of three articles written for publication in Malaysia when four Malaysian children had been taken by the child protection agency in Sweden and placed in a foster home, while the parents were jailed pending trial. A summary of my articles is found here: A child protection case Malaysia / Sweden, with links to the other two articles.


The parents of the Malaysian children who are now back in Malaysia with their own relatives, are evidently going to be prosecuted by Sweden for having allegedly harmed their children by punishing them physically.

Since the law relating to care of children in Sweden aims at protection, it calls for assessments of what is likely to happen in the future. And the taking of children into public care is not in accordance with the law unless the removal from home and placement in a foster home carries a clear probability that the future will thereby be markedly better for the children - otherwise the taking into care would of course not be protective. This condition applies in Sweden but is also common to the child protection laws in all the Nordic countries.

In a previous article I emphasised the evidence of how harmful it ordinarily is for children to be separated from their parents. This alone should make the Swedish authorities desist from taking children into care except in extreme cases. But there is a further consequence too: Living in foster care with strangers, directed by the social services, has an effect of its own on children who are compelled to do so.

What, then, are the experiences from individual cases and from statistically backed studies? Is life in a foster home really a good option? How is foster care carried out and monitored?

A well-known case from Sweden

Polish-Swedish journalist Macjei Zaremba starts his long account of the case this way (my translation):
" 'I must away from here urgently, help me ... I hate being here.' Daniel Sigstrom, taken forcibly into care, died in the foster home. The social services considered that Daniel's mother exaggerated his illnesses. Daniel died of epilepsy on 24 April 1992, 14 years old. But his foster father claims that he did not know that anything like that could happen, far less be prevented. Instead, he had been told by the social worker that Daniel's most dangerous illness was his mother."

Daniel Sigstrom suffered from a brain tumour. His mother had applied to the social services for some economic help in caring for Daniel. The social services disliked Mrs Sigstrom's outspokenness and wanted to "teach her", so they took Daniel into care instead. He was placed with ignorant and violent fosterers.

There had been court cases before Daniels death, but the result was negative, he was not allowed to go home. His mother also tried to take the state to court after his death, to have it established that the social services, together with doctors and fosterers, had lied and acted deceitfully and in violation of Daniel's and her own human rights. The courts found for the state and sentenced her to pay the state's costs. (But I believe the state later relieved her of this debt of approx. 100,000 Euros.)

This case is extreme, but each of the elements in it is unfortunately well-known from a number of other cases. The social services in Scandinavia are especially severe on children or parents who are ill or handicapped.

Three Swedish studies of foster care

Michael Bohman & Soren Sigvardsson carried out a study published in a series of articles, over more than twenty years with a last follow-up in the 1990s, of a large group of children who had at birth been given up for adoption by their mother, usually because she was living in very difficult social and economic circumstances. A number of them had nevertheless been taken back to live with their mothers, another group had been adopted, while a third group had lived in foster care (in many cases the foster care had been stable, like a pseudo-adoption). The foster children did worse than the national average at school and showed maladjustment at the time of doing military service, and at age 23 about twice as many as average were registered for alcohol abuse and crime. The children growing up with their own mothers, with or without their fathers present, did below average at school and doing military service, but at 23 did best of all three groups and were then no different from the national average, in spite of having grown up under more difficult conditions.


Bo Vinnerljung carried out a large study of foster care in Sweden and also a very comprehensive survey of studies from other European countries. It was published in 1996 as "Fosterbarn som vuxna" (Foster children as adults). Among his conclusions are (my translation): "But one of the fundamental problems of foster care is that it has difficulties in giving precisely stability, both 'objectively' ... and in the foster children's own experience. ... All studies show equal or worse results for foster children [even] when compared to children in disadvantaged groups or risk groups living at home." ... "In sum: There are some variations but no study has found that the foster children have done better."


Children often flee foster homes and institutions. In Sweden two foster children, about 6-7 years old, were found walking along the motorway. They were trying to find their mother.

Canadian teacher Paul Kropp mentions, in connection with kidnapping, in his book "I'll Be the Parent, You Be the Kid" (1998) that out of 51,973 children reported missing in Canada in 1994, 40,000 turned out to be on the run under their own steam, and most of them returned home, again under their own steam, within 48 hours. The rest were almost all involved in parents' custody conflicts.

We can compare this high number of runaways returning within 2 days with the third Swedish study: Hakan Jonson's "Sammanbrott i familjehem" (Collapse in foster homes), 1995, which was commissioned by the Swedish social authorities: Out of 189 foster placements, 44% broke down, the children escaping from the foster homes and not returning, so that the social services had to terminate the placements before they wished. (Jonson quotes other, international studies showing comparable percentages.) The two dominating factors are that the foster home cannot cope with the child (35%) and that the child flees, refuses to go back, goes home to its biological family (also 35%). In 8% of the cases the triggering factor was abuse of the child in the foster home or other unsatisfactory circumstances there. Placement of foster children with relatives resulted in 26% collapsed placements, as against 47% collapse when placed with non-relatives.

The social services continue their practice

These studies are of course well-known to all the Scandinavian authorities, and one would have thought they would have inevitably led to reform. This has not happened, the whole field of social work being dominated by the ideologies which have caused precisely such results. One Norwegian psychologist (Bunkholt) in her textbook refers to the Bohman/Sigvardsson study with a straight-out lie: She claims that the foster children did steadily better than the children living with their mothers. Studies from the Danish state-governed institute for social research conclude that social policies towards children are carried out with no knowledge and no account taken of their results.

On top of these disturbing facts about life in foster homes comes the fact that most cases of taking children into care in our Nordic countries are unnecessary and based on exaggerated and even untrue accusations on the part of social workers. Two very experienced and knowledgeable human rights lawyers, one in Sweden and one in Norway, have estimated 80 or 90% of the cases of taking children into care to be unnecessary and/or falsely based. That means, in reality, that they are illegal, since they do not provide the children with clearly better conditions and future prospects: A child deprived of its real parents is on the contrary exposed to both emotional and material danger. Vinnerljung's study points to social workers being prejudiced: they belittle children's feelings for their parents in "troubled" families. One study from England showed that social workers thought poor families lacked the deep bonds of love which middle class families had.

The situation today

Let me round off with three references (among many) to fairly recent conflicts in foster homes across the border to Sweden's neighbour Norway, whose policies, as usual, follow Swedish models in admiration:

28 Jan 2014:
A 16 year old boy threatened his foster mother with a knife. The foster mother escaped and ran out of the house and over to the neighbour, where she called the police. The police arrived at the house armed, and took the boy into custody.

July 2011:
A 35 year old man confessed to having killed his former foster mother. He had called on her to discuss her treatment of him in his childhood. When she showed little understanding, everything "went black" and in the heated quarrel he grabbed a tool at hand and beat her to death. He had previously tried to poison her.

2 Feb 2014:
A 49 year old woman was today sentenced for having ill-treated her foster daughter on several occasions, hitting her with a flat hand in the face and on her hand. She had also spanked her, pushed her and shaken her. The violence had gone on for a long time. The woman fully admitted her actions, having herself informed the social services that she could not tackle the challenges.

The prosecutor wanted 120 days of jail, 30 of them conditionally. The court, however, thought there were a number of extenuating circumstances and instead sentenced the woman to pay the foster daughter approx. 3,500 Euros and to do 90 hours of community service. (In comparison, the Malaysian parents in Sweden have already been in remand for close to two months without having been sentenced and are only now being charged.)

In the same week that we could read about this last verdict, the state lauched another big campaign to recruit more foster parents. The advertisements in all the many newspapers must have cost a large amount, and even more is to be spent on "teaching" these recruits the ruling ideology of foster placements.


Other articles about the Malaysia / Sweden case:

Malaysian family in Sweden – children taken
Forum Redd Våre Barn, 22 January 2014 –