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Taboos: Smacking parents

The consequences of Sweden's anti-smacking laws for family life should be a warning to Britain, reports James Heartfield

Due from the Home Office: a consultation paper on whether parents should be allowed to discipline their children with a smack. Last year the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the British courts' decision that a man who caned his stepson was within his rights. The appeal to the European court by boy 'A' was supported by the British government, suggesting that New Labour favours a change in the law.

One person the home secretary ought to consult before deciding is the Swedish lawyer Ruby Harrold-Claesson. She has been standing up for parents fined and imprisoned under that country's 'anti-smacking' law, passed in 1979, and also for the children, denied contact with their families after being fostered. Jamaican-born Harrold-Claesson is Sweden's only black lawyer, and the chair of the Nordic Committee of Human Rights. We met while she was in London, drawing attention to the unintended, but terrible consequences of Sweden's law on smacking.

A 23-year old Eritrean refugee, raising her two girls on her own, was sentenced to one year's imprisonment for having spanked her youngest daughter, aged six. The children were placed in an orphanage. They spoke no Swedish and thought that the police had taken their mother away and shot her, as the Ethiopian police might have. A stepfather who slapped his two boys, aged 11 and 12, after they were caught stealing, was imprisoned for a year. A young Thai widow who slapped her 14-year old daughter's face was imprisoned for a month, and all four of her daughters taken from her to a foster home. The 15-year old daughter of a Bosnian refugee was fostered after her mother disciplined her with a belt. The foster parents' address was kept secret from her family. As Harrold-Claesson says, 'the law targets immigrant parents, and parents with strong religious beliefs'. According to Sweden's National Board of Welfare, no immigrant can avoid prosecution by referring to the child-rearing practices in his home country.

The Swedish law is supposed to protect children. But according to Harrold-Claesson, 'the effect on children is devastating: they lose contact with their families and their playmates to be "replanted" in new soil'. She says that 'real abusers are more devious than the parents who discipline their children out of love, hiding nothing'. But the real damage is done by the law itself: 'To fail to discipline a child, not to give it any boundaries, is real cruelty.' In Sweden even sending a child to his room, 'room arrest', is illegal, seen as cruel treatment and deprivation of liberty.

Harrold-Claesson objects that the authorities start out with an assumption that 'the family is principally bad - in Sweden the family does not count'. Through the crazy theories of psychologists, ordinary family relationships are viewed with suspicion. 'One mother I defended was accused of having a "sick symbiotic relationship" with her daughter - they meant that she loved her.' Where parents are unable to cope because of problems like alcoholism or addiction, the social services stop grandparents from taking the children in, on the grounds that they are to blame for the parents' shortcomings - they raised them that way.

Harrold-Claesson has successfully defended many parents against imprisonment, even taking Sweden to the European Court itself. For her efforts she has been marked down as a troublemaker. 'I'm branded as a child abuser', she says, matter-of-factly. Now the courts in Gothenburg stop her defending parents, by refusing to appoint her as a public defender. 'You are not to talk about human rights in Sweden, because we are supposed to have them already', she says.

In the 1980s right-wing governments in America and Britain tried to enforce personal morality in the name of 'family values'. That led to bigotry and discrimination. Those 'problem families' that failed to live up to the ideal were pushed around, and sometimes broken up. But the reaction against 'family values' is in some senses even worse.

For many caring professionals it seems that there is a predilection to believe the worst of ordinary families. Their reverse image of the 'family values' ideal is the assumption that all families are potential sites of abuse. If Sweden is anything to go by, a British law against what many consider to be normal parental discipline could act as a green light to childcare professionals to break up families, imprison parents and send children to orphanages or secret foster homes.

Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999

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