Alex Newman is the president of Liberty Sentinel Media, Inc., a small information consulting firm. He has a degree in journalism from the University of Florida and writes for several publications in the U.S. and abroad. Though born in America, he spent most of his life in Latin America and Europe.
The Kingdom of Sweden has been revered by supporters of big government around the world for decades, cited by statist college professors and policy makers everywhere. It started with the myth that its “socialist” system could simultaneously provide freedom, prosperity, and generous welfare benefits to all. But now, the illusion is beginning to crumble.
The Swedish government has become notorious worldwide in recent years: Its blatant and sometimes brutal suppression of religious freedom, educational liberty, and the traditional family is well known among Western nations. In 2003, the Justice Ministry investigated the Holy Bible for “hate speech.” A few years later, a Christian preacher was sentenced to jail for criticizing homosexuality. Last year, the government passed a law banning homeschooling and religious instruction in so-called free schools. All educational institutions will soon be teaching the government curriculum — including the notion that there is no difference between genders. Examples of the state run amok are near endless.
One recent tragedy exemplifies the government’s attitude: the internationally known case of the Johansson family. Almost two years ago, following years of harassment by the municipal social services, the Johansson family made plans to leave Sweden for good. The government had been pestering the parents about putting their young son, Domenic, into daycare. They refused. Later, instead of enrolling the young boy in government school, the parents decided to educate Domenic at home until they left for India, the mother’s homeland. Homeschooling was — despite draconian restrictions — still legal in Sweden, after all.
But as they were sitting on the plane, just minutes before takeoff, armed police stormed onboard and seized the then-seven-year-old boy. There was no warrant, no suspicion of physical abuse — just an angry social-service bureaucracy that couldn’t stand the thought of the Johansson family escaping its iron fist. After the family was torn apart over the education matter, the government also made an issue about the boy’s not having received all of his optional vaccines. On top of that, a pair of baby-tooth cavities the family had scheduled an appointment to treat in India were also later included in the allegations against them.
Now, years and countless court hearings later, the family is still separated. An appeal in Stockholm on May 11 drew some protesters and countless letters of support from advocates around the world, but the government won’t budge. The involvement of half-a-dozen high-profile organizations in Scandinavia and elsewhere on behalf of the family has not helped, either.
The parents were unable to attend the most recent hearing due to health concerns: The mother, Annie Johansson, was so traumatized by the tragedy that she’s been hospitalized at least six times since then. They worried that if they showed up and had any sort of breakdown, the government would use it as more evidence that they were not competent to parent their child. It was just as well they didn’t come: According to numerous attendees, the court proceeding was a charade. They were kicked out after ten minutes so the proceeding could continue behind closed doors. The Johansson’s were represented by an appointed court attorney, despite their protests.
Supporters of the family did come out. With time, more Swedish people are becoming aware of what is going on in their country, despite a virtual media blackout. As the clampdown accelerates, Swedes are speaking out. Jonas Himmelstrand, the president of the Swedish Home Education Association and the founder of the family-policy think tank Mireja Institute, has been traveling the world warning of the dangers of Swedish family and education policies. In the last year he’s been to Portugal, Belgium, Italy, Canada, Hungary, and more — sometimes invited by government. Soon he will be sounding the alarm at the United Nations in New York.
“You have to see [the attack on homeschooling] in the broader scope of the view of family in Sweden,” Himmelstrand told Crisis Magazine, citing the state daycare system that now cares for more than 90 percent of children older than 18 months. “Our government has basically taken on the role of child-rearing to a certain extent.” He also noted that Swedish schools are under heavy criticism for producing poor results, both socially and academically — which may lead more parents to discover how successful homeschooling actually is.
The Domenic Johansson case, while not unique in Sweden, has homeschoolers in particular very worried. “This is a case which seems incomprehensible to many Swedes,” Himmelstrand explained, noting that he understood why it would lead to protests. “It’s not the only case where the social authorities have done something which seems to lack all sense and all humanity.”
He said one of the most alarming elements of the Johansson case is that homeschooling and not attending daycare were used as a justification to seize the child in an earlier verdict. The government alleged it had somehow damaged the boy — a claim for which there is, “of course, absolutely no proof whatsoever,” Himmelstrand noted. “That’s the scary part: We have social authorities who cannot seem to understand sometimes what a healthy family is.” The whole case is “a tragedy” and something that is “very upsetting to Swedish homeschoolers,” Himmelstrand concluded.
Pro-freedom advocates in Sweden agree. And the case is indicative of a much more troubling trend. “I think the Domenic case very well illustrates the Swedish government attitude against individual freedom,” explained Joakim Fagerström, a father and the president of the liberty-minded Ludwig von Mises Institute in Sweden. “The reason for this is that it is very important to keep the kids in government-run schools, since this is where you put the foundation for our statist minds. Even the government in Sweden understands that they can’t just use pure force to make the citizens to do what they want – and that is why education is so important to form our kids to be statist to the core.”
Fagerström added that the long-term consequences of Sweden’s approach would not be good, noting that the quality of its government-run schools was getting worse every year. “I am afraid that this trend is accelerating,” he said. “Of course, our goal is to reverse this trend by educating people on the benefits of individual freedom.” That, as he freely admits, will be a long and tough process — especially considering Swedish society’s general apathy on issues of liberty.
But people who have had bad experiences with the social services are also speaking out. Daniel Hammarberg, for example, compiled a book called The Madhouse, which details some of the more outrageous and well-known scandals to rock Sweden, such as the Domenic case. “It definitely proves that the state considers children its property, especially when they seize the boy just as they’re about to leave,” he told Crisis. “It also shows that they don’t care about international law and verdicts from the European Court of Human Rights, which state that you can’t remove children just because you feel they’d be better off in another home.”
Asked about why the government pursued the Johansson family with such vigor, he said “a single intact family standing up and protesting might inspire the whole lot of society to follow them. So they have to make sure they get to indoctrinate every single child.” Like many others knowledgeable about the barely disguised “growing totalitarianism,” as Hammarberg put it, he also explained that government agencies are generally very suspicious of religious parents. “There’s a strong anti-religious atmosphere here,” he noted. The Johanssons, of course, call themselves devout Christians — a very rare phenomenon in secular Sweden.
Attorney Mike Donnelly, the director of international affairs for the U.S.-based Home School Legal Defense Association, has been one of the prominent American voices speaking out about the Johansson tragedy and the overall attack on homeschooling and educational liberty in Sweden. “The treatment Domenic Johansson and his family have received from Swedish authorities is deplorable,” he said. “As a government, Sweden should be ashamed. Its policies toward families and particularly homeschoolers are completely at odds with the values acknowledged by western democracies — specifically the right of parents to direct their children’s education.”
Donnelly referred to the nation’s “reprehensible” approach to education as “increasingly totalitarian.” He’s even ranked Sweden at or near the bottom internationally in terms of educational freedom, in the company of ruthless dictatorships like North Korea and communist China. The HSLDA is one of the organizations — along with the Alliance Defense Fund and others — involved in appealing the Johansson case to a European-level court.
The Domenic case and another similar tragedy where a family was ripped apart over homeschooling, combined with Sweden’s upcoming ban on alternative education, has provoked a furor overseas. The last Western country to try to ban home education was Nazi Germany. But even in the Nordic kingdom, where people traditionally have a great deal of trust in authorities, the consequences are beginning to show. Numerous families have already fled, going to places like Canada, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, among others. Many more will emigrate once the prohibition on homeschooling goes into effect this summer. Some are even seeking refugee status to avoid the growing persecution of homeschooling families.
Where the Swedish saga will end remains to be seen. Sweden has made some uneven moves toward liberty. The welfare state has been reduced in size and scope in many areas; just a few decades ago, the government even ran a fast-food chain. Some industries are gradually being privatized, too. But even though the immense tax burden has been declining over the last ten years, there’s still a long way to go. And in terms of religious and educational freedom, the trends are troubling.