Investigating child custody claims, EU delegation ignored by government

Committee investigating Denmark’s handling of custody and child abduction cases denied meetings with ministers and police officials

Members of an EU committee in Denmark to investigate how the country handles custody and visitation rights involving EU citizens have been rebuffed by the government.

The delegation, led by MEP Angelika Werthmann from Austria, came to Denmark after the committee had become “deeply concerned” by Denmark’s handling of custody and visitation rights cases and has been in Denmark for the past two days to investigate complaints sent to them by parents who feel their rights are being trampled on by the government in child custody cases.

The group made the trip especially to speak with the justice minister, Morten Bødskov (Socialdemokraterne), the social affairs and integration minister, Karen Hækkerup (Socialdemokraterne), and the national police commissioner, Jens Henrik Højberg, to discuss the growing number of cases the EU is seeing coming out of Denmark.

The petitions committee is designed to investigate concerns sent to them by EU residents. Being involved in human-rights cases is something of uncharted territory for the group that is more often called in to investigate and mediate issues like housing, environmental and land disputes.

Neither the ministers nor the police commissioner would meet with the delegation. They instead sent representatives who, according to Werthmann,  told them they only had a “short time” to spend with them.

“I can say, without a doubt, that this committee has never, ever been treated in this fashion anywhere else,” a frustrated Werthmann said today during a press conference. “This is an official delegation of the EU.”

After failing to be granted an audience with the ministers, Werthmann and fellow delegates, MEP Peter Jahr from Germany and MEP Carlos Iturgaiz Angulo from Spain, then attempted to arrange meetings with rank-and-file MPs, only to find that most have already left for their summer holiday.

“I have no comment about that,” said Werthmann, wryly.

The committee came to Denmark looking for answers to specific cases that Werthmann said needed to be addressed immediately.

“We have cases of abused children being sent back, by the courts, to the parent that has abused them,” she said. “There is something wrong here.”

Werthmann said she had hoped to show Bødskov documentation from specific cases showing the Danish courts had ruled incorrectly.

“This is an international case,” she said. “The petitioners come from EU member states, the US, Australia, Russia and other places around the world.”

Among Werthmann’s other concerns was the government’s lack of urgency when it came to child abuse cases.

“We are talking about children, and no matter how many people try to tell me that there is nothing wrong here, that children often just ‘make things up’ I believe that there are serious problems,” she said.

The committee is currently investigating seven Danish child custody cases – brought by both Danish and foreign parents. But Werthmann said that based on results of a four-hour meeting with some of the petitioners, she believed number of cases the committee will be called on to investigate will grow considerably.

“At least 50. Maybe 150. The number 800 has been mentioned,” she said.

Angulo praised the women and said that he was “proud” that they had the courage to come forward with their stories of the abuse of both themselves and their children at the hands of their former husbands and partners. When Werthmann advised them to keep up the pressure and keep their stories in front of the media, one frightened mother said that the risks of going public were just too high.

“I was in the media a few years ago and it nearly cost me my child,” she said. 

The woman claimed that she was stalked by members of the fathers’ support group, Foreningen Far, who tried to get her fired from her job, declared mentally unstable and, she said, turned her medical records over to the media because they revealed that she had been under psychiatric care.

“They are a bunch of violent men that support other violent men,” she said.

Marion Weilharter, the Austrian mother of a six-year-old boy who is the subject of perhaps the most high profile child custody case in Danish history was at the press conference and asked the committee why Denmark was allowed to continue to violate international law.

“They are an EU member state,” she said. “They have signed international agreements, so why can’t the other member states force them to honour the law?”

Oliver’s father, Thomas Sørensen, was recently found guilty by an Austrian court of kidnapping his son and bringing him back to Denmark last year. 

The committee is also investigating Denmark’s failure to respect decisions reached by courts in other EU member states, according to Werthmann.

Weilharter said that both she and her parents had tried to visit Oliver during this trip to Denmark, but Sørensen had turned them away.

“He threatened to have us arrested,” Weilhater said.

Sørensen argued that Weilharter and her parents showed up unannounced and had been “belligerent”.

“Both Marion and her parents are welcome to have contact with Oliver, but I want to prepare him and make sure that it happens under safe and decent conditions,” he said. “I do not think it is proper that they show up without notice.”

Angulo promised that despite being frustrated in their efforts this trip, the committee would present its findings to a plenary session of the European Parliament.

“We will tell the full parliament what has and has not happened here and hopefully bring it to a vote,” he said.