A family's flight from the welfare state

 

A Family's Flight

From the Welfare State

By Jacob YOUNG with JOAN WESTREICH in New York and DONNA FOOTE in London

 

 

From Newsweek Number 47, © November 21, 1983, Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The law prohibits copying, redistribution or retransmission of this material without express written permission from Newsweek.

 

SWEDEN

To his parents, Alan Lilja was a happy, healthy baby. But staffers at the state-run Swedish day-care center Alan attended saw a very different youngster, one who showed little emotion, avoided playing with other children and seemed to be treated coldly by his father, Karl. In October 1982 a Stockholm court said that Alan's health and development were at risk - and ordered Karl Lilja and his Polish-born ex-wife, Bozena, to turn their son over to government welfare officials. Rather than surrender their baby, the Liljas fled from Sweden and began a year long journey that took them to Norway, Poland, Finland and the United States. Now the Liljas must leave America or face deportation back to Sweden - where authorities may try again to take custody of Alan.

The case of Alan Lilja, now three, has touched off a heated controversy in Sweden over the country's laws regarding the welfare of children. Authorities from local social boards who suspect a child's "health or development" is threatened can take custody of a child before the courts have heard the charges in the matter. In theory, this allows social-welfare workers to remove youngsters immediately from homes where their lives may be endangered by negligent parents. But it also gives the state broad powers to intervene in family life, and about 25,000 Swedish children are now in the government's care - nearly half of them against the wishes of their parents. Swedish officials say the rules reflect a deep concern for the well-being of children. But critics charge that the regulations are too authoritarian, allowing the state to determine and enforce - strict standards of domestic behaviour. "There are probably good intentions behind the law," says Swedish appeals-court judge Brita Sundberg-Weitman. "But in Sweden there is a tendency to be intolerant of anything that is different."

Tactics:

By the standards of his homeland, Karl Lilja is certainly different. In the midst of a career as a social worker, he became a born-again Christian; after joining a fundamentalist Pentecostal Church in 1977, he began studying for the ministry. In 1980 Lilja - who had already married and divorced once - wed Bozena Jadwiga, now 22. Soon after Alan's first birthday, the two divorced but continued to live together, a tactic some Swedish couples have used to take advantage of the higher welfare benefits the government provides to divorced mothers. After the court demanded custody of Alan, the Liljas left Sweden and eventually entered the United States on student visas in December 1982.

Sponsors:

But since the Liljas never attended any classes, they were subject to deportation almost from the day they arrived. By contacting church and social-welfare agencies in America, Karl found a number of sponsors who provided the family with shelter and legal assistance. As late as last Fri day, Karl was hoping that a Pentecostal Church in Canada might agree to give his family sanctuary. At the weekend, even those hopes faded. It became clear that there was not enough time to make arrangements before the scheduled deportation date of Nov. 15 - and the family's supporters began raising money for plane tickets to Denmark.

The family is determined not to return to Sweden. The original order placing Alan in the care of the court has expired, but the Liljas fear that another could quickly be drafted. There has never been any suggestion that Alan was physically abused, and physicians' reports in Sweden showed him to be in fine health. The Liljas' wanderings cannot help their case with the child-welfare authorities, who could conceivably consider the family's odyssey a form of emotional negligence. But that very threat points up the continuing controversy: whatever the relative merits of the Liljas' case, should the state have such power to interfere simply because of a bureaucrat's disapproval?

 

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