There is an oft-repeated parable about Scandinavian culture that goes like this: Two Norwegians, two Swedes, and two Danes are stranded on an island. As the days pass, each pair has a different way of handling the situation. Coming from an industrious nation of Vikings, the Norwegians build a ship and sail away. The Swedes, known for being sombre and reserved, go about their business alone, unable to so much as introduce themselves to one another. And the Danes, being a benevolent, communal people, form a co-operative that benefits each person.
In other words, the DanesÂ’ preferred method of overcoming hardship is to work together, to cooperate.
Abuse accusations donÂ’t sway custody
About 10 years ago, Sarah Larsen*, an American, married a Dane. They had two children, and in 2007 the four of them moved to Denmark.
The marriage went sour, and Larsen filed for divorce in 2010. She had a good job in Denmark and was content to stay in the country to accommodate the custody arrangement, which according to Larsen was five days a week with her, two with the father.
What followed, said Larsen, was a nightmare. She claimed that her ex-husband abused the children Â– that they would come home crying and covered with bruises Â– that they feared spending time with their father.
While The Copenhagen Post was unable to find any hard evidence implicating the father Â– and while the father has not been convicted of any crimes in conjunction with these accusations Â– Larsen provided The Post hospital reports that confirm that her children had bruises. She also provided an email from a Danish family counselling centre that read: Â“I have no doubt that SarahÂ’s former husband has been violent to her, and that he still is to the children.Â”
Despite the dearth of hard evidence, LarsenÂ’s lawyer, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because of an ongoing court case, said that she is sure that abuse has occurred.
Â“I donÂ’t doubt for a moment that the father has been violent,Â” the lawyer said. Â“I believe the children. TheyÂ’re telling it to authorities and to their mother, and I donÂ’t doubt it.Â”
Larsen was certain that these accusations would prompt changes in the custody arrangement or, at the very least, a swift and thorough investigation into the alleged crimes. But this, she claims, never happened.
Â“They simply told us to co-operate,Â” Larsen said. Â“This is the last thing I thought would happen. We were told to wait and give it a chance. But there is no way to cooperate with someone like that.Â”
Co-operation stressed above all else
In 2007, Denmark passed the Danish Act on Parental Responsibility, which introduced new guidelines for determining custody rights. According to Vivian JÃ¸rgensen, a lawyer who has handled numerous custody cases, the biggest change was the emphasis placed on equal custody: judges can force the parents to work together even if, well, they canÂ’t work together.
Â“In 2007 we got this new idea,Â” JÃ¸rgensen told The Copenhagen Post. Â“Now whatÂ’s more important is not the environment or how you treat the child. The idea now is that itÂ’s always good for the child to have contact with both parents, and itÂ’s always good to force the parents to co-operate.Â”
JÃ¸rgensen added that the law does not favour men or women. Instead, it simply says that parents Â“must agree on significant decisions regarding the childÂ”.
This philosophy, according to Annette Kronborg, an associate professor of family law at the University of Copenhagen, is designed to promote, and indeed force, co-operation. She said that if there is conclusive evidence of wrongdoing towards children then it is indeed a factor in custody decisions. That said, the Â“starting point is co-operationÂ”.
Â“The idea is to make the parents co-operate,Â” Kronborg said. Â“And the best solution is to stay out of the family and let the parents make their own solution. So according to the family law idea, the best interest of the child is what the parents agree on.Â”
If, that is, the parents can agree.
Abuse claims can be detriment
Like Larsen, Carrie MÃ¸ller* is from the US and married a Dane. She moved to Denmark about nine years ago, and she and her husband had two children.
The marriage dissolved, though, amid what MÃ¸ller claimed was physical abuse against her and her children. There is no hard evidence to corroborate this claim, and MÃ¸llerÂ’s ex-husband denied the accusations in court.
The Danish authorities awarded them joint custody. MÃ¸ller protested on the grounds that her ex was abusing the children, but the authorities werenÂ’t persuaded.
Â“They said the biggest problem was that these parents couldnÂ’t get along, not that the children were getting abused,Â” MÃ¸ller said. Â“There was no doubt in my mind that my children were telling the truth, and still they said it was co-operation between parents that was the issue.Â”
Marianne Holdgaard, a law professor at Aalborg University, claimed that cases like this, in which the court forces parents to make an agreement, are not uncommon.
Â“Even if you donÂ’t agree, even if you canÂ’t speak to each other, even if you claim they have been violent, then you can still be forced to have joint custody,Â” Holdgaard said.
Holdgaard added that making abuse claims can be detrimental to the accuser.
Â“If you say something like that, they can turn it around and say: Â‘ItÂ’s your fault that the children donÂ’t want to see the [other parent]. YouÂ’re putting it in their head.Â’ And in that sense, it can actually be a disadvantage to make claims against another parent because it can be used against you.Â”
Foreigners: systematic discrimination
To foreigners like Larsen and MÃ¸ller, the Danish custody system is an oddity: the forced co-operation, the unyielding emphasis on split custody, and what they see as a disregard for the safety of children.
But to them Â– as well as other foreigners involved in custody battles, including two men and three women who provided information for this story Â– these guidelines are not merely a way to foster co-operation, but to mask ethnic discrimination.
One foreigner, who is from Europe but had a child in Denmark with a Dane, said: Â“They try to make things fit the law. And thatÂ’s always to help the Dane. IÂ’m sure about it. IÂ’m very sure of that, that the Danish authorities, no matter which ones, try to help the Danes.Â”
As with accusations of violence, The Copenhagen Post was unable to corroborate charges of discrimination. The Post contacted numerous authorities, including judges, social workers, and law enforcement personnel Â– the people who are at the heart of these discrimination claims. No-one agreed to comment.
But ethnic discrimination was a recurring grievance among each foreigner interviewed for this story.
Â“The impression I get is that all of this wouldnÂ’t have happened if I were a Dane,Â” said Larsen. Â“So whether itÂ’s cultural or something thatÂ’s embedded in the system, I think my children and I are [seen as] lesser because weÂ’re not Danish.Â”
LarsenÂ’s lawyer does not agree with this assessment. Having defended foreign men and women, the lawyer conceded that custody cases are difficult for foreigners because of the language, the procedures, and so on. But not because of discrimination.
Â“I donÂ’t see discrimination,Â” the lawyer said. Â“You cannot say that itÂ’s because itÂ’s discrimination Â– thatÂ’s impossible to say.Â”
To that end, the lawyer detailed a previous case involving two Danes: Â“The mother said [to the court]: Â‘You have to help me. HeÂ’s abusing us, and I donÂ’t want joint custody with him because we are very afraid.Â’ And they said to her: Â‘Go home and co-operate.Â’ That is whatÂ’s going on now Â– the government and the authorities are forcing co-operation against all odds.Â”
Even if these problems persist among Danes as well, the foreigners we spoke to for this story are convinced that discrimination is taking place. And whether it is or not, they nevertheless feel that they are in a nearly impossible situation, one that they say is emotionally draining.
Â“When I heard I wasnÂ’t the only one, I wanted to cry tears of joy,Â” MÃ¸ller said. Â“Because at some point you think youÂ’re going crazy. I canÂ’t help but sit here and wonder how many other mothers and fathers are going through the exact same experience.Â”
The experience, in other words, of being stranded on an island, where it seems no-one will co-operate.
* These are pseudonyms. The two women named in the story asked to have their names changed due to legal concerns.